Stuart Appelbaum (29184)
Stuart Appelbaum

“Economic inequality is the defining challenge of our time,” President Barack Obama declared late last year. One measure the president proposed was an increase in the minimum wage to begin to address the yawning gap between the 1 percent and those at the bottom of the economic ladder. That proposal, unfortunately, has failed to make it out of either chambers of Congress.

Not to be deterred, advocates are advancing living wage legislation on state and local levels. Labor unions have joined the campaign while continuing to help lift the economic floor through collective bargaining.

A central focus for 1199SEIU is our fight at the renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Our 2,000 union sisters and brothers there are struggling mightily for a contract that would help lift them out of poverty. The word “poverty” is not usually associated with Johns Hopkins. In fact, U.S. News & World Report has ranked Johns Hopkins the best hospital in the nation in 22 of the last 23 years.

The institution certainly cannot cry poverty. In 2012, Hopkins opened a state-of-the-art $1.1 billion medical complex. In the same year, total compensation for the hospital’s president, Ronald R. Peterson, increased 86 percent. And last year, Hopkins earned $145 million in profits on operating revenue of $1.9 billion.

In spite of its sound economic footing and worldwide prestige, the nation’s number one hospital pays its 2,000 service, maintenance and technical workers subpar wages. Some 500 of theses workers earn less than $11.47 an hour, the poverty level for a family of four. Nearly 70 percent of Hopkins workers make less than $14.92 an hour—the wage that qualifies a single parent and child for food stamps.

During April contract talks, 1199 members reminded Hopkins management of the first words of the hospital’s mission statement: “The mission of Johns Hopkins Medicine is to improve the health of the community.” The statement adds that the hospital seeks “to afford solace and enhance the surrounding community.”

Contract talks belied those statements. The workers’ demands are modest. We seek to establish a $15 minimum wage for workers with at least 15 years experience over the life of the four-year contract. In contrast, Hopkins is offering members a raise of just 1.5 percent in the first year of a five-year contract and no annual raise higher than 2 percent.

Such an agreement would make little difference in the lives of the hundreds of members who rely on government assistance such as food stamps and Medicaid. “It makes me feel that they don’t value us,” said Michelle Horton, who has been a Hopkins food service worker for the past nine years. “Everyone plays a part in taking care of the patients at Hopkins—nutrition, housekeeping—the doctor and nurses. We all just want to be treated fairly.”

“It’s sad that they [Hopkins] are number one, and the people who helped make them number one can’t afford to pay our bills,” said Vandalette Jones, a Hopkins support associate who has put in 28 years at the hospital.

Another Hopkins employee, Simone Hicks, lost her previous job and her home to a predatory lender. Since then, she has struggled to keep a roof over her head. She’s been living in homeless shelters and transitional housing for the last few years. Should full-time workers end a hard day’s work sleeping in a homeless shelter?

Sister Hicks is not alone. An astounding 93 percent of the union workers at Hopkins earn a wage that’s too low to affordably rent an average two-bedroom apartment in Baltimore. Other necessities also are out of reach, forcing many of the members to take part-time jobs.

Many Hopkins workers are male heads of household, but the majority are women of color. As is well known, women are paid on average 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. Closing that gap is central to closing the economic inequality gap.

It is for these women and men at Hopkins that thousands of New York 1199ers will board buses for Baltimore on Saturday, May 10 to join hands with our Hopkins sisters and brothers in a Mother’s March for Justice and Family Day. This struggle is not just about Johns Hopkins. We understand that if Hopkins can continue to hold down health care workers in Baltimore, others will be emboldened to hold us down across the nation.

An injury to one is an injury to all.