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Newly unionized residents and fellows at Mass General Brigham filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board Friday alleging the hospital system retaliated against them for unionizing by removing long-standing benefits.
In the charge, MGB Housestaff United alleged MGB had cut department-specific stipends that generally cover electronics, board certification fees, licenses, and other professional development costs. Bargaining unit members in Dermatology, Orthopedics, Radiology, Neurosurgery, Psychiatry, and Infectious Disease received emails in August indicating they would no longer receive such stipends.
The departmental changes occurred more than a month after the union’s successful election on June 8 and subsequent certification.
MGB has not begun bargaining with union officials to establish their first contract.
National labor law prohibits employers at unionized workplaces from changing compensation or benefit structures before negotiating with union representatives — unless the changes were economically necessary or part of a recurring event, like annual wage reviews. Regardless, employers are required to provide the union advance notice and a chance to bargain over the changes.
According to the filing, the Committee for Interns and Residents — MGB Housestaff United’s parent union — did not receive prior notice.
“The message that was communicated to residents through program directors was that MGB was reviewing all the department benefits in light of the unionization,” said Diego B. Lopez, a newly elected bargaining committee member. “Basically, everything was kind of up in the air at the moment about which benefits we’ll still have and which ones we’re going to lose.”
In a written statement to The Crimson Monday, MGB spokesperson Jennifer Street denied that the hospital system had cut benefits. Street also denied that MGB had knowledge of the ULP. Vanessa D. Gilbreth — MGB’s senior legal counsel — was copied on an email containing the initial filing sent by MGB Housestaff United to the NLRB Friday, according to CIR spokesperson Annie Della Fera.
According to union organizers, department chairs justified the August benefit cuts by pointing to a March 2 decision by MGB to increase the annual living stipend to $10,000 and raise salaries by 10 percent. The announcement came less than two weeks after the union campaign launched publicly.
“This stipend is intended to assist with cost of housing, child care, or any other financial challenges you face during your training,” wrote top MGB administrators in a March 2 email announcing the increase.
“We hope and believe that this significant investment reflects the enormous value we place on our trainees,” the email read.
The email does not specify any plans to replace other benefits with the stipend. But Tuesday, Street — the MGB spokesperson — said the stipend had in fact replaced departmental stipends.
“Recent changes to benefits, which include increased stipends for all residents across Mass General Brigham that replace any local stipends or payments, were announced in March, prior to both the submitted petition for unionization and the resulting election,” Street said.
Street added that the stipend is intended to cover “unique academic” expenses in addition to living costs.
While MGB did not communicate information about benefit replacements in its March emails about the stipend increase or benefits, MGB sent residents and fellows a March 16 explainer on unionization that suggested the hospital system might revoke departmental benefits.
“If the contract standardized practices across departments, benefits unique to individual departments could be modified or lost, as the contract’s terms would control. An unintended consequence of unionization could be that the organization has greater control over local departmental decisions,” the email attachment read.
The stipend increase and raise were part of a broader email campaign by MGB administrators to dissuade residents and fellows from signing onto the union effort.
“Your entire relationship with Mass General Brigham — including program and education leadership – would change, and in many ways you might not like,” read a statement on a MGB website dedicated to the topic of unionization. That website has since been removed.
“The feeling among residents that I’ve spoken to is that this is just blatant retaliation,” Lopez said. “They kept trying to fearmonger that the union will take benefits away, and now they’re making that reality [happen] by taking them away themselves.”
“There were a lot of implicit threats made during the campaign. Now, they are making good on those threats,” he added.
Even if the replacement had been officially announced in March, Della Fera, the CIR spokesperson, said that the labor law “status quo” protections that prohibit compensation structure changes go into effect when the union effort is announced.
“The status quo starts the moment that they find out about a union effort,” Della Fera said.
Lopez and fellow bargaining committee member Sarah Brown acknowledged the small monetary value of the departmental stipends that MGB cut, but stressed the importance of specific stipend programs.
“The scale of these benefits is a fraction of that of $10,000 probably from a monetary value standpoint, but are really critical, especially for my procedural colleagues who need to buy safety equipment,” Brown said.
“It just seems so petty,” Lopez said.
The ULP also alleges MGB violated national labor law by reclassifying Infectious Disease Fellows as “research fellows” instead of “clinical research fellows” after the union campaign launched publicly. In August, MGB informed such fellows they were no longer eligible to receive the $10,000 stipend without their clinical distinction.
“Infectious Disease Fellows, to date, continue to execute their clinical assignments,” read the filing.
Michael D. Morrison, a spokesperson for MGB, did not comment on the reclassification allegation.
Currently, MGB Housestaff United has finalized their bargaining committee and is now in the process of determining their bargaining priorities with a unit-wide survey. Brown said the first contract bargaining timeline depends on how the ULP is resolved.
“If we hadn’t unionized and they offered us the 10K stipend and then removed other benefits, there’s nothing we could do about that. None of this is explicitly written into our contracts, which is part of the reason we unionized in the first place,” Brown said.
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