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Vermont’s Largest Health Care Union Will Almost Double in Size

The Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, already the state’s largest affiliation representing some 2,500 health care workers, will roughly double in size by bringing 2,200 more support staff under representation.

Support and technical staff employed by the University of Vermont Medical Center voted overwhelmingly this week to unionize, joining 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 voting, which was run by representatives of the National Labor Relations Board over three days at the UVM Medical Center’s main campus and in a cafeteria at the Fanny Allen campus. The vote results, 997-163 for support staff and 123-18 for technical staff, were announced by the union late Friday afternoon.

“The energy in the building is very excited,” said Jacob Berkowitz, a member of the 70-person union organizing committee and a staffing office specialist at the hospital. After 11 months of effort to organize, “to finally have that union and to win in such a strong fashion, it feels great,” he said.

As a result of both votes, the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, already the state’s largest affiliation representing some 2,500 health care workers, will roughly double in size by bringing 2,200 more support staff under representation. 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-standing labor organizations, which called it “likely the largest private-sector election in Vermont ever.”

Support staff from a wide variety of categories will participate in a new bargaining unit that will include licensed nursing assistants, lab and office assistants, phlebotomists, food service, custodial workers, schedulers and parking attendants. It will encompass workers from both the hospital and more than a dozen outpatient offices, including family medicine, dental, ophthalmology and orthopedic care, among others. 

A separate vote added mental health workers from the emergency and psychiatry departments, as well as pharmacy and laboratory technicians, to the existing technical staff bargaining unit. 

Organizing across so many different departments and facilities made the effort difficult, but also rewarding, and ensured members came from all walks of life and included people from many different racial and ethnic groups, Berkowitz said. 

The process of building the union through many hours together outside of work brought them closer and has created a real sense of community, said Natalie Cartier, a pharmacy technician. “I see so many people now, just passing them in the hall, and know we have each other’s best interests at heart,” she said. “We all have each other’s back.”

The result of the two votes also has symbolic significance for worker representation in general, organizers said. UVM Medical Center is the state’s largest employer with 8,800 employees, more than half of whom will now be represented by the same union organization. 

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

“We believe the election administered on-site by the National Labor Relations Board met that goal, and expect to be in contact with the union soon to begin negotiating in good faith a collective bargaining agreement,” he wrote.

Unionization has heated up at UVM Medical Center in recent years. Medical residents voted to form their own union, which has been active in seeking better pay and working conditions for its members. Nurses went on strike in 2018 during contract negotiations, and successfully bargained for a mid-contract wage increase last year. 

AFT Vermont also represents health care workers at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and the Community Health Centers of Burlington. A regional independent union, 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 the Brattleboro Retreat. 

Union membership nationwide fell to a new low last year, making up just 10.1% of workers, according to new 2022 figures out last week from a survey done annually by the U.S. Department of Labor. Thirty years ago, that percentage was more than 20%. 

Just over 12% of Vermont workers are union members, according to the survey. The percentage is slightly higher among health care practitioners and affiliated technical workers nationwide at 13%, but is lower among health care support workers, at 9.3%

Both Berkowitz and Cartier said they have been inspired by the passion and work ethic that their colleagues bring to their jobs each day, and they want to see that recognized. “We absolutely are the backbone of the hospital,” Cartier said.

The new bargaining unit will also be seeking better wages, specifically a minimum wage of at least $20 per hour. “Bottom line, that is the living wage in this county and in this state,” said Berkowitz. “It is imperative to get that for people who are working so hard, and who are so patient-facing.”