Steward's Corner: Pennies for Evelyn

Doctor views imaging machine

When management decided they could no longer pay an imaging department file clerk the rate she'd been making for 20 years, members of Communications Workers Local 1168 launched a tongue-in-cheek shop floor fundraising campaign to help the company out. Photo: Jim West / jimwestphoto.com.

An issue doesn’t need to violate contract language to spark a winning fight, as this story from my union demonstrates.

Just before Christmas last year, management told one of our members at Buffalo General Hospital that as of the first of the year, she would no longer receive a $1.50-an-hour pay bump as the department lead.

Evelyn is a file clerk in the imaging department, where patients go for X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. She had been receiving this pay differential since the late 1990s in exchange for taking on extra duties as the lead.

When X-ray film disappeared and medical imaging went digital, the job of file clerks ballooned. They became tech troubleshooters who field calls for help from technologists and doctors when an image isn’t displaying correctly on screen, a report is lost in cyberspace, or a patient needs copies of images to take home.

Evelyn is our department’s hidden superhero, our “go-to” person. As the lead, she makes sure everything runs smoothly for patients and appears flawless despite the increasing complexity of the work.

We work for a $2 billion company, Kaleida Health. This was its idea of cost savings—a sudden 6.5 percent pay cut for one of our lowest-paid members, who had an ill husband and was the sole income-earner in her household.

We filed a grievance, but Kaleida insisted there was no contract violation. Management said it would no longer assign Evelyn the extra duties from now on. But the work wasn’t going away. Department members would just have to figure it out among themselves—or worse, Evelyn would end up doing it anyway.

BATTLE OF THE JARS

If the largest health care provider in Western New York could no longer afford to pay Evelyn what they’d been paying her for the last 20 years, we figured they could use some financial help.

So members of our union, Communications Workers Local 1168, launched a tongue-in-cheek shop floor fundraising campaign to help Kaleida out.

Seven large jars were placed in each of the major work areas in the imaging department, along with flyers explaining the hard times the company had recently come upon.

The flyer said that it was on us, who cared about Evelyn the most, to donate our spare change to Kaleida. And hey—maybe Kaleida could use our contributions to continue to pay her!

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The battle was on. Immediately department members started to fill the jars with spare change. Management and human resources responded by locking up the jars in their offices.

Members in each area kept an eye on their beloved jars. Whenever management took a jar, members threatened to file a Labor Board charge for violating their right to engage in concerted activity. Within a few hours the jars would be back out, after H.R. told management they couldn’t keep the jars locked up.

But then the jars would disappear again, owing to some “miscommunication” between H.R. and management. It appeared no one knew which end was up or down. Members gave union organizers minute-by-minute updates.

The jars miraculously reappeared after we threatened to take the stunt hospital-wide. They disappeared again when management got upset and decided to go against H.R.

MAKE IT STOP

The issue came to a head when management set up a meeting to call an end to the mockery. The hospital’s attorney claimed the union had no right to raise funds for the hospital—only the hospital’s foundation could do that.

Local 1168 leaders told management, “You’re going to make this right, or we’ll take this to the rest of the membership.” In other words, we would spend the weekend walking through all the hospitals in the chain to talk with everyone about our employer’s pettiness.

Kaleida management decided to throw in the towel. They said they would red-circle Evelyn’s wage rate, meaning that not a penny would be taken from her. She would stay frozen at her current total wage—including the $1.50—until the union’s bargained raises caught up with her.

Managers were explicit, though, that they would agree to the deal only if the union agreed to immediately remove all the jars and flyers.

We agreed. But we made clear that, with the contract expiring this summer, we were looking forward to negotiations to address how technology has changed the job duties in medical imaging from when Evelyn’s original job description was written in the 1990s to today.

The whole stunt was a breath of fresh air. Management’s attack on Evelyn was so wrong that it provoked an unprecedented outpouring of support. Our co-workers weren’t afraid to come together and stand up for her. And it proved how the boss may be on the right side of contract language but the wrong side of the issue.

Patrick Weisansal II is a radiologic technologist for Kaleida Health and the director of mobilizing and organizing for CWA Local 1168.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 483. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.