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  • How did RAs end up having a union election?
    A group of research assistants who wanted to do something to improve salaries and working conditions at McLean reached out to a labor union, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), for their help to form a union. They then began to reach out to RAs across the hospital, and it became clear that there was support across the board for higher salaries and better benefits, and also that some RAs had workplace safety concerns that they did not feel their supervisors or HR had been helpful with. Most RAs who we were able to talk to (over 75%) wanted to move forward with a union election. In order to have a union election, you need 30% of a “bargaining unit” (the group of positions that will be unionized) to sign “union authorization cards,” which legally authorized AFSCME to represent us in an election. Another RA may have reached out to you already to see if you were interested in forming a union, but if nobody reached out to you, it’s probably because we could not find contact information for you on the internet (through Facebook, Linkedin, or another platform). Organizers have chosen not to use work emails for outreach, due to privacy concerns. 53 out of the 130 RAs who work at McLean signed cards, so there were far more than the 30% required to organize an election. McLean was notified on April 16 that RAs had filed a petition. The hospital agreed that the bargaining unit that the organizers proposed (all research assistants) made sense, and to move ahead to schedule an election, with ballots going out on May 17.
  • How does a union election work?
    Once a petition is filed with the NLRB, McLean must provide the union and the organizers with a list of all eligible employees in the bargaining unit (the group of employees seeking to unionize) that includes their personal contact information. This allows organizers to speak with colleagues about concerns, address any questions, and inform them of the voting process. The recent election for RAs and LAs was conducted via mail to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. Confidential ballots were mailed to all eligible employees, who had 3 weeks to return the ballot via mail to the NLRB Field Office in Boston. The NLRB counts the ballots, and both parties have the opportunity to challenge any ballot if they believe the employee should not be eligible. Once any challenges are resolved by the NLRB, the election is certified. Depending on the COVID-19 situation, an election could be held via mail or in-person on campus over the course of a day or more.
  • How long does it take to get a union contract signed?
    First contracts for unions generally take between 6-12 months to negotiate.
  • How do dues work?
    Dues cover the day-to-day cost of having a strong union, and support those putting in the hard work of creating one. The dues you would pay to AFSCME would be $495/per year for full-time employees, and pro-rated for part-time employees and employees that work less than 12 hours per week. Some people argue against unions by saying that they “won’t be worth the cost of dues,” but this misrepresents the union process. When we negotiate our first contract with McLean, we need to sign off on it as a group, so we would never agree to a contract where our salary increases are less than the cost of dues. You won't pay any dues until the first contract is signed (when you start seeing the material benefits). As a group, you can agree democratically to pay more than the $495/year (or pro-rated amount) in dues. Anything paid on top of this would go into the “local" (as in, the specific group of employees), not to AFSCME, to be used however we wanted. Many unions decide to pay their bargaining representatives and stewards (employees who are elected to leadership positions within the union, who poll our members to figure out what’s important and then work with AFSCME to negotiate for it, or who can help members process and mediate grievances). Many unions also have their own funds that they can use to help their members, such as emergency funds or a fund to assist with expenses related to continuing education. Contributions to funds like these can be optional, so members who have means could contribute to via additional dues, and any member can draw from them. This is just one of the many things a local can do. The bottom line is that, not only is a union a way to be represented in negotiations with McLean, but it’s also a structure that can be used for mutual aid in the McLean community.
  • I'm happy with my job, and haven't had any issues with the salary or benefits. Why should I support or get involved with the union?"
    If you’re happy in this job and are comfortable with the compensation, that’s awesome! There are certainly people who feel this way. But many are still supportive and involved because they recognize that’s not everyone's experience. Also, while you're currently content, without a union, McLean has the power to make changes to your working conditions at any time. So, they could change a benefit you really rely on, like TOWP, whenever they want.
  • Will I be fired for supporting a union?
    It is illegal for a supervisor, the hospital administration, or HR to retaliate against you for union activity. Additionally, McLean has a policy on discipline and termination involving progressive steps, with termination being the 4th step. Before termination, the employee should be given documented verbal counseling, a written warning, and either a suspension or final written warning. The policy states that no disciplinary action can be taken without prior review by HR. However, this doesn't mean the risk of termination is completely zero. At McLean, we are at-will employees, meaning the employer can fire us at any time for any reason, as long as the reason is not illegal (e.g. engaging in union activity, reason based on employee's identity). Union authorization cards and election ballots are completely confidential, so McLean will never know if you signed a card or how you voted unless you tell them. Additionally, after their successful union election, research assistants and laboratory assistants at McLean have not experienced any retaliatory discipine or termination. If you feel you have been retaliated against or coerced by a supervisor, administrator, or HR, you can learn more about your rights and report the experience anonymously to union representatives.
  • Are all employees in the bargaining unit automatically members of the union?
    One the first contract (collective bargaining agreement) is signed, all employees in the bargaining unit have the opportunity to become members. To become a member, you just have to sign a card. Being a member means you can attend membership meetings, vote to elect union officials, run for a union position yourself, and vote on contracts and and all other union business. If you choose not to become a member, you will still pay fees to the union, called "fair share" fees. In most contracts, the dues and "fair share" fees are exactly the same dollar amount, it's just that members pay dues and non-members pay fair share fees. Because all employees will benefit from a union contract, regardless of membership status, fair share fees ensure that the union has the resources to negotiate a good contract. This is the law in Massachusetts and 22 other states, and it ensures that our union is strong, active, and able to make real improvements in our workplace.
  • What if employees in the future don't want to be unionized?
    If employees in the future do not want to be unionized or want to replace AFSCME with a different union, there is a process for doing so, with specific rules about when it can happen. At least 30% of employees in the bargaining unit must sign cards or a petition asking the NLRB to conduct an election in which the union can be voted out, or replaced by another union, by a majority vote. Unions cannot be voted out in the first year after certification. This allows them a full twelve months to negotiate a first contract and dissuades employers from campaigning to decertify the union, or delaying contract negotiations, before the union is able to win any improvements for its workers. If an agreement cannot be reached after one year of negotiating, and the group feels that a union is not the mechanism we want to use to secure our needs, we can vote to decertify the union. Once the first contract is signed, however, employees cannot decertify until 3 years after it is signed. This allows time for employers to adjust to the contract, put any phased-in wage increases into effect, and maintain stability for the employees. After a collective-bargaining agreement passes the 3-year mark or expires, you may ask for an election to decertify your union or to vote in another union at any time.
  • What is an unfair labor practice, and what happens when you file a ULP charge?"
    An unfair labor practice (ULP) is an action that violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). A union or employer can file a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) if they believe the other party has violated the NLRA. When you file a charge to the NLRB, they have 7 business days to determine whether it is legitimate enough to notify the other party. At this point, and in consultation with Board representatives, the filer can decide to withdraw the charge if they think they will lose, and the party being filed against can decide to settle the issue and change their practices independently to avoid a hearing. If neither party backs down and the issue goes to a hearing, both sides make their case with evidence. If the charged party is found guilty of committing an unfair labor practice, there are a range of things they may be mandated to do. They may have to post notices and notify employees that they have been found guilty, and to remind them of the labor rights that they've just violated. If the issue is a dispute over wages, they may have to give employees retroactive pay. In extreme cases, if the guilty party refuse to comply, responsible individuals may have to pay fines or even serve jail time.
  • Will unionization change my relationship with my supervisor?
    After decades of collective bargaining at more than 60 university campuses across the US, no one has produced evidence that unionization damages the relationship between faculty and graduate students (it may even improve them). This was an allegation McLean made during the RA campaign, though we don't see why relationships with PIs will be any different. Contracts aren't negotiated with supervisors; they're negotiated with HR, the hospital administration, and Mass General Brigham. Unless you have problems with your current relationship, a union won't change it. Employees write the contract, so why would we ask for anything that would make our lives worse or interfere with our opportunities for professional development? However, if you have an issue or grievance with your supervisor that you've tried and failed to work out with them on your own or through HR, you can call on your union stewards and representatives for support. This will help employees who do not feel like they have sufficient power to speak up on their own, and for whom HR has not been helpful.
  • Will I need AFSCME's permission to take a day off?
    Absolutely not, unless a majority of employees wanted to put this in the contract. Your supervisor may have mentioned the possibility that time off will be more strictly regimented if we have a union, and determined by seniority. There’s no reason this would happen, unless it is decided collectively that we wanted this policy. Ask a graduate student if they have to ask their union’s permission to take a Friday off! This may be more applicable to RNs, MHSes, and CRCs, where you need a number of employees to be working each shift on a given day; in that case, if two employees both want to take off a day but at least one needs to work, the union might decide collectively how they want those situations to be decided.
  • Will we have to go on strike?
    Striking is one of the tools in the union toolbox, but is a very serious decision for a union, and is always a last resort. Strikes only happen in about 2% of contract negotiations, and should only happen if an overwhelming majority of employees are in favor (over 90%). We have a right to strike if we do not believe that McLean is making a good faith effort to negotiate a contract that meets our needs. Strikes can be incredibly effective (as seen with the recent NYU graduate students contract negotiations), but there are also public actions that are not striking--rallies, petitions, and other forms of direct action and engagement that show employers we mean business without interrupting our day to day work.
  • Will the union handle grievances?
    Union contracts typically include a grievance procedure, which provides due process to a member (or the union as an organization) if a problem arises during the contract or the administration is not fairly adhering to the contract. During bargaining, we can negotiate a grievance process that works for us. In other unions, many grievances are resolved quickly and informally with the help of union representatives or stewards. However, most contracts also allow for unresolved grievances to be escalated to an outside neutral arbitrator, whose decision is legally binding. Currently, employees have tried to go to HR with concerns, and have seen these concerns dismissed or deflected. Unions can help process grievances better than HR departments, because they do not have an inherent conflict of interest. Unlike HR, they aren't trying to shield the company from liability.
  • Will unionization bankrupt the hospital?
    Absolutely not. We would never negotiate a contract that would bankrupt the hospital, and McLean would never agree to one that would. That would put us out of a jobs, shut down McLean's research programs and clinical services, and would mean that AFSCME no longer had us as members! This isn't in anyone's interest. "The union will put us out of business" is a textbook response to a union campaign, and it is unfounded. Employers might complain that unions place an additional burden on them because of the cost of negotiations, but this cost is largely self-imposed; it is usually employers themselves who drive their costs up by dragging out the contract negotiation process and paying expensive lawyers to try to break the union. Coming to the table with employees in good faith is not expensive, and it reduces the workload for HR. RA, RN, MHS, and CRC organizers and AFSCME understand that McLean is a freestanding psychiatric nonprofit hospital, and the financial implications of that position. The goal of unionizing was to be on even footing with McLean, so that we can negotiate a contract that works for us as well as them. We're not expecting six-figure salaries with a union contract. We're asking for a living wage.
  • What do RAs want from contract negotiations?
    As we’ve talked to RAs across the hospital, the main concerns that have come up have been salary and benefits. RAs have expressed feeling financially unstable and like they’re living paycheck to paycheck, and having to take on second jobs to make ends meet, which can be incredibly stressful, and cuts into time that would be better spent on papers and grad school applications. RAs have also been interested in transportation support, in the form of discounted MBTA passes, and/or a gas stipend. There is support for increasing the amount of tuition assistance McLean offers, and having McLean pay upfront rather than reimburse for classes. Many RAs also want more supportive time off policies, that would allow us to take vacations when we need them, rather saving all of our PTO for grad school interviews. RAs at MGH, for example, have 28 days of paid time off (we have 20 at McLean), and they don’t have to use their PTO at all to attend conferences or go to grad school interviews. So there are a lot of things that we could ask for in our first contract. What we need from McLean, and how we prioritize these needs, will be determined democratically, once we begin bargaining.
  • What do we stand to gain from this union contract?
    There is so much we could gain from this first conrtact! For the first time, RAs have a voice to demand the salary, benefits, and working conditions we need. At universities around the country, graduate students have ratified contracts that secured amazing gains. At NYU, the first-ever RA/TA union contract at a private university in 2002, the union negotiated a 38% increase in minimum stipends. They just went on strike and won an hourly wage increase from $20 to $26, which will increase to $30 by the end of the contract, along with other wins. Graduate assistants (GAs) at UConn negotiated a nearly 7% annual increase in total compensation (stipends plus new fee waivers) in their first union contract in 2015, along with dramatically-improved health benefits with no increase in premium costs. In 2020, Harvard graduate students ratified a contract that included a 35% increase in minimum stipends, secured dental benefits, and set up funds to help employees cover the costs of child care and additional healthcare costs, among many other things.
  • Will I be prevented from working flexible hours or overtime once we sign our contract?
    McLean has essentially argued that unionizing will make us shift workers, by comparing us to other unionized employees in the MGB system who were already shift workers before unionizing. This is not logical reasoning. There is no ready-made rules that unions come with, and no reason that a union should make our hours less flexible. If we unionize, we will advocate collectively for the working conditions we want. Unions often negotiate more flexible working hours for their members. There are zero contracts for graduate students that contain language restricting scheduling, besides establishing an upper limit to how many hours a graduate student should be expected to work per week (though students are allowed to work more than this at their own discretion). Just as graduate students and other similar unionized positions across the country,we would not negotiate for more rigidity in scheduling, as it would not be appropriate for our work. There is also no reason that a union should prevent us from working overtime. It does not serve our community to prevent people from doing the amount of work we want to do in the way we want to do it. In fact, we could even negotiate to be able to work more overtime, and can secure better protections from being asked to work off the clock. Just like with all other aspects of our crurrent working conditions, if we form a union we can decide as a group whether we want to keep things as they are, or try to change them.
  • But everyone at McLean is underpaid, right? It's not just research assistants?"
    It’s true that everyone’s salaries at McLean are below market value. But there’s a big difference between being paid less than your counterparts at other hospitals, and paid below a living wage. We all make less than we would outside of the MGB system, but the bigger issue is that McLean pays us below the cost of living ($19.17 for the Boston/Cambridge/Newton area, according to MIT). This is unacceptable, especially when so many RAs have to pay off student loans, and save for grad school applications. A union will advocate for the salaries RAs need to survive, not to live like kings.
  • Will unionization bankrupt my lab?
    Currently, the hospital determines RA pay unilaterally, and this affects how labs manage and project their funding, and how much they ask for in grants. If McLean mandated higher pay, then your PIs would adjust their grant funding to accomodate, and would be able to write in higher dollar amounts for salary in grants from the NIH without having to sacrifice other things. When we begin bargaining collectively with McLean, we will work with the hospital to negotiate a contract that works for all labs, as grad students across the country have done. At some institutions, this has meant negotiating a phase-in pay increase, to give labs time to adjust their finances to accommodate changes. If you've ever been confused about why your PI wants to pay you more than HR will let them, it's because HR's policy is to preserve pay equity within and across labs, in order to shield the hospital from discrimination liability. Unfortunately, this means that they try to keep all RA salaries equally low, rather than equally high. A union gives us even footing with McLean to make sure that every RA at this hospital can make a living wage, while continuing the research we came here to do.
  • Will unionization impact my PI's ability to write letters of recommendation?
    Absolutely not. There are no graduate student contracts with language regarding letters of recommendation. A union is there to bargain for the conditions of employment that should be universal for everyone, not to legislate the day-to-day opportunities for professional development that are unique for every RA. Graduate student union contracts do not get into the weeds of how recommendation letters are requested or written, how opportunities to author papers are allocated, or which conferences students can attend. If we want to work together as RAs to univeralize or standardize these processes in our contract, we could, but there is no reason we would negotiate over this unless an overwhelming majority of RAs wanted this. You can find links to graduate student contracts here.
  • RAs are funded by grants, so how will a union contract with the hospital affect our salaries?"
    Currently, McLean determines RA pay rates unilaterally, and those rates – as well as projected increases – are then factored into grant proposals to agencies like the NIH. With collective bargaining, we’ll be able to negotiate over those pay rates. Grant-funded graduate students at Harvard, NYU, UConn, and so many others have been able to negotiate substantial salary increases, and there is no reason it should work differently for us.
  • What's the format and timeline of union negotiations?
    The RA/LA Bargaining Committee (BC) will meet with the hospital's BC once to twice a month to discuss contract proposals put forward by both the hospital and the RA/LA representatives. After a contract is reached that the hospital can agree on and that the RA/LA BC agrees would be a good deal for RAs, the RA/LA BC will take the contract back to the membership (all RAs and LAs at McLean, about 140 people). A majority of people voting on the contract will have to vote in favor of it in order for it to be adopted. Once ratified in this way, the contract will go into effect immediately. First contracts typically take 6 months to 1 year to negotiate, which means we can expect to see a contract ratified between March and August 2022.
  • How will the bargaining representatives know what RAs and LAs want?
    Bargaining Committee (BC) members will solicit RA/LA needs and priorities first through the contract negotiations survey, where members can talk about the issues that are most important to them. BC members will also hold two monthly meetings, on the first Monday and first Tuesday of each month, to discuss issues arising in contract negotiations and work with the membership to determine the best way forward. Lastly, BC members will also hold office hours from 12:00-1:00pm every Sunday to answer any questions and hear any concerns from members. If you are a member of the union, you should have the invites to these meetings in your Outlook calendar; contact your bargaining representative or if you don't see them!
  • Who's bargaining on behalf of the hospital?
    The McLean bargaining committee is made up of both McLean and Mass General Brigham personnel: Lisa Pratt, Vice President Human Resources, McLean Raquel Espinoza, Vice President Research, McLean (Ad Hoc) A Primary Investigator (Not yet confirmed who) Vanessa Gilbreth, MGB Office of General Counsel Emma Melton, MGB Office of General Counsel Kelly Boehner, MGB Employee and Labor Relations Deanna Eastman, MGB Employee and Labor Relations
  • Why AFSCME, and not MNA?"
    We have chosen to affiliate with AFSCME because of their service-oriented model which provides us with maximum resources to engage in collective bargaining with hospital leadership. The research and laboratory assistants have already won a successful campaign with AFSCME and are about to begin contract negotiations, so AFSCME is familiar with the issues at McLean and are developing relationships with their contract negotiating team. MNA would only represent the RNs at McLean, not the MHSes and CRCs, and we believe that organizing together best reflects the integration of RNs and MHSes/CRCs within the care team and the collaborative work we do. MNA dues also come at a higher cost than AFSCME's. The AFSCME International union represents one of the largest nurse unions in California with a very strong contract, and is able to draw on support and resources from the International organization to help us negotiate for similar benefits in the interest of optimal patient outcomes.
  • How will a union improve staffing ratios?
    Staffing ratios can be negotiated and codified in a union contract by establishing a Safety Committee. This committee of nurses, MHSes, and CRCs would address staffing ratios, along with other safety concerns. Currently, McLean administration has complete control over staffing ratios. With a union, nurses and MHSes/CRCs will be able to have a direct impact on staffing ratios and other issues of patient safety for the inpatient units and residential programs.
  • How will a union reduce overtime mandates?
    By improving staffing ratios, the need for overtime mandates will be reduced. Similar to staffing ratios, the policies that govern overtime mandates can be negotiated and codified in a contract. Depending on the desires of the group, RNs and MHSes/CRCs could fight for double time pay when mandated, or put in language to limit how often an employee could get mandated, for example. The language of the contract will reflect what the RNs, MHSes, and CRCs at McLean want to see change.
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