The METROHEALTH SYSTEM STRIKE OF 1989 began on March 27, 1989 after negotiations between The MetroHealth System (See: CUYAHOGA COUNTY HOSPITAL SYSTEM) and Local 3350 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) broke down. Contract negotiations focused on obtaining fully paid medical coverage for all members who worked over 30 hours per week, annual wage increases and a priority demand of coverage for vision, prescription and dental care under the Union-Management Care Plan for all part time employees who worked 20 or more hours per week. The strike would last 21 days and eventually result in changes in the Local’s leadership.
The hospital structure posed many problems. Of the 2,000 employees in the bargaining unit 85% were union members and 15% were “Fair Share” (those who paid the equivalent of dues, but were not formal union members). Local 3350 began an organized effort to increase membership; union stewards spoke to every non-member employee and membership increase to 90%.
Union membership in the system consisted of lower paid people in housekeeping, laundry, and food services, better paid unit secretaries, medical receptionists, LPN's, and higher paid skilled maintenance people, lab technicians with college degrees, and social workers with master’s degrees.
Negotiations began in January 1989. The Hospital team was represented by lawyers Craig Brown and Paul Monahan from the Duvin law firm, Bob Ivancic, the head of Human Resources and a few department directors. Union negotiators consisted of Regional Director Patricia Moss, Regional Staff representative Leroy Elmore, Local President Barbara Thomas, John Gallo, VP, and 10-12 stewards.
After protracted negotiations an impasse was reached and according to State law, a Federal mediator was assigned. The hospital did not offer any new concessions and the union did not back away from its previous demands. The union hinted at the possibility of a strike if necessary but was not seeking to go in that direction. At the final meeting with management their lead negotiator, Craig Brown, essentially challenged the union saying that the hospital had lasted through a 71-day strike 20 years before and would outlast any future strikes. Bob Ivancic, head of Human Relations, told Barbara Thomas that he did not think employees would go out, stay out long, or win. Following this final meeting, the union printed a leaflet with Craig Brown's speech and put in bold letters at the top. “Hospital Negotiator Tells Union Members to Piss Off!”
The arbitrator’s recommendation favored the hospital and management. Over 60% of union membership voted ten days later to strike. Headquarters were established at an employee’s house on Scranton Road adjacent to the hospital campus and pickets posted at the eight entrances.
On the first day of the strike a few hundred people showed up and were picketing with signs. The hospital brought in a bus load of non-bargaining employees who had parked their cars in the Flats to avoid using the hospital lots which were blocked. The next day the hospital received an injunction preventing mass picketing. Despite that the union maintained 3-6 pickets at each gate.
John Gallo also received support from the TEAMSTERS UNION which did not allow truck deliveries to be made to the hospital during the strike.
At the end of the second week a group of Medical Technologists talked about going back to work. They were among the higher paid members, but unlike other skilled workers were unable to get per diem jobs at other hospitals during the strike as was the case for some respiratory therapists, X-ray techs and LPNs and many maintenance men who found other work. Union leadership convinced the technologists that the strike would be won and over in a week and that their support was vital to any victory. They agreed and did not return to work.
During the second week of the strike a press conference called by a group of dignitaries sympathetic to the strike raised concerns about whether patients were receiving proper care and if sanitation, health and safety standards were being met because of a lack of personnel. The hospital balked at these allegations. In the last week of the strike, John Ryan of the Communication Workers and other union leaders offered to hold a demonstration of support, since Local 3350 was prohibited by the court. The negative publicity and the threat of a union demonstration provided the impetus needed to restart negotiations.
The negotiations proved successful and the final agreement between the hospital and the union provided a 3% wage increase each year for three years and fully-paid medical insurance. Coverage for dental, visual and prescription drugs was maintained for full time employees and extended to part time employees. The strike however all but bankrupted the local and resulted in a change of leadership.
At the next contract negotiations of 1992 the Regional and the new local leadership gave back the fully paid health insurance that had been secured. Two years later the membership voted to replace them with the previous leadership team. Union membership expanded in January 2008 when Local 3350 and Local 3353 merged to form The MetroHealth System Employees Local 3360.
Paul Lubienecki, Ph.D.