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March Mania

Labor moves to unionize health care workers

Organized labor has responded to pending changes in the ownership and structures of some area health care providers.

The United Steelworkers of America (USWA) are making a pitch to organize more Twin Ports health care workers.

Odd as it may sound, the Steelworkers have represented various health care workers for the past half century. The union currently has about 3,500 members working in health care jobs in Minnesota.

In addition to Duluth, workers have been organized in Virginia, Hibbing, Eveleth, Chisholm and many other areas of the state.

"Steelworkers have a long history of representing health care workers," said USWA district director David Foster. "We've been organizing health care workers for over 50 years."

Virtually every aspect of health care is represented in their union, he said.

"This is a kickoff to a major new organization drive of unorganized health care workers in the Twin Ports," said USWA technician Jon Youngdahl. Union officials were in Duluth Tuesday to announce the drive, which is targeting about 1,600 workers.

Foster said a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board removed the last legal obstacle to giving local health care workers the right to vote to organize. The action pertained to a dispute between the union and St. Mary's/Duluth Clinic.

He said they will be holding a large outreach activity in the next couple of weeks for workers at St. Mary's and Polinsky Rehabilitation Center, St. Luke's Hospital and Clinic System and Miller-Dwan Medical Center.

There will be mailings, meetings, house visits and one-on-one talks with workers.

"This is one of the largest campaigns ever in Minnesota, one of the largest going on in the nation," Foster said. "It's a critical time in the reorganization of the heath care industry."

He added that changes in health care management have brought a lot of uncertainty to workers

Last month, Miller-Dwan announced a planned merger with SMDC, and St. Luke's is considering a merger with an out-of-state health system.

Some technical workers at Miller-Dwan have already voted to join the Steelworkers, and their new contract is being used as an example of what union representation can bring.

"At this point, we've got several campaigns going," said organizer Mike Denardo. "The USWA has taken the lead ... the USWA has a record of getting good contracts."

Kim Barnes, an employee at Inland Steel, is involved in the campaign.

"I believe everybody deserves fair, solid union representation," she said. "Health care workers do a really difficult job."

Sandra Ballruff, another USWA organizer, said having a union was especially important for women. She said union wages had allowed her, as a single mom, to raise her three kids.

Local labor leader Alan Netland applauded the Steelworker's efforts.

"The health care industry knows better than anyone why workers need a voice," he said. "They need a voice at work. The Steelworkers are here to talk to them."