Vermont’s largest health care association could double in size.

Support workers at Vermont Medical Center in Burlington celebrate after voting to unionize on Friday, Jan. 27. Photo by Glen Russell/VTDigger

Support and technical workers employed by Vermont Medical Center voted overwhelmingly this week to unionize the hospital’s nurses and other technicians as part of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

More than 1,300 people participated in the election, which was led by representatives of the National Labor Relations Board over three days at the UVM Medical Center’s main campus and in the cafeteria on the Fannie Allen campus. The results of the vote, 997-163 for support staff and 123-18 for technical staff, were announced by the union Friday afternoon.

“The energy in the building is exciting,” said Jacob Berkowitz, a member of the 70-person union organizing committee and a labor office specialist at the hospital. After 11 months of trying to organize, he said, “It feels good to finally get that union and win it strong.”

As a result of both votes, the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Practitioners, already the state’s largest health care worker with 2,155 members, will more than double in size, bringing in 2,200 additional support workers to represent. The union is an affiliate of the National American Federation of Teachers, or AFT, an arm of the AFL-CIO, one of the nation’s longest-running labor organizations, which it says is “probably the largest private sector choice in Vermont.”

Support workers from various categories will participate in the new bargaining unit, which includes licensed nursing assistants, laboratory and office assistants, phlebotomists, food service, custodial workers, schedulers and parking attendants. With both hospital staff and more than 12 outpatient offices, it includes family medicine, dentistry, ophthalmology and orthopedics, among others.

A separate vote added mental health staff from the emergency and psychiatric departments, as well as pharmacy and laboratory technicians to the existing array of technical staff.

Deb Snell, president of the Vermont Nurses and Health Professionals Association, speaks after the hospital’s workers voted Friday, Jan. 27, to unionize at the Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. Photo by Glen Russell/VTDigger

Organizing across multiple departments and facilities made the effort difficult, but it was rewarding and members came from all walks of life and from different races and ethnicities, Berkwitz said.

The process of building the bond together outside of work brought them closer together and created a real sense of community, said pharmacy technician Natalie Cartier. “Now I see so many people walking past them in the hall and I know we have each other’s best interests at heart,” she says. “We all have each other’s backs.”

The organizers said that the results of the two votes have a symbolic significance for labor representation. UVM Medical Center is the state’s largest employer with 8,800 employees, more than half of whom are now represented by the same union.

UVM Medical Center President and CEO Stephen Leffler said in an emailed statement that the organization is “committed to creating a culture where our people feel heard, respected and supported.”

“We believe the election by the National Labor Relations Board has accomplished that goal and we look forward to meeting with the union soon to initiate a collective bargaining agreement in good faith,” he wrote.

Fellowships at UVM Medical Center have heated up in recent years. Medical residents They voted to establish Their own association seeking better pay and working conditions for its members. Nurses went on strike in 2018 contract negotiations, and successfully a The wage increase between contracts last year.

AFT Vermont also represents health care workers at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and Burlington Community Health Centers. A regional independent association, United Nurses and Allied Professionals, represents nurses and other health care workers at other hospitals in the state, including Copley Hospital in Morrisville, Springfield Hospital and Return in Brattleboro.

Nationally, union membership has fallen to a new low, covering just 10.1% of workers, according to a new report. 2022 figures It came out last week in an annual survey by the US Department of Labor. Thirty years ago, that percentage was over 20%.

More than 12% of Vermont workers are union members, the survey found. Nationally, the percentage among health care professionals and allied technical workers is slightly higher at 13 percent, but lower among health care support workers at 9.3 percent.

Both Berkowitz and Cartier say they are inspired by the passion and work ethic their colleagues bring to their jobs every day, and want that recognition. “We are absolutely the backbone of the hospital,” Cartier said.

The new bargaining unit wants better wages, specifically a minimum wage of at least $20 an hour. “Bottom line, this is the living wage in this county and this state,” Berkowitz said. “It’s important to get that for people who work very hard and are very patient.”

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