August 3, 2009 | last updated May 26, 2012 8:10 am

Labor Battle Tears At Red Cross

Labor union spokesman Larry Dorman and Red Cross employees Christine Holschlag and Nancy Newton say the Red Cross is unfairly threatening to cut their wages.
Labor union spokesman Larry Dorman and Red Cross employees Christine Holschlag and Nancy Newton picket outside Farmington headquarters.

Contentious contract negotiations between unionized workers in Connecticut and the American Red Cross broke down for a third time last week, setting the stage for a potential strike in the coming months if a deal can't be reached soon.

Unionized nurses, technicians and phlebotomists have been working for the Red Cross without a contract since March, and they say the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit is refusing to enter into a fair contract.

The union workers, which include 225 members of Local 3145 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, say the Red Cross is trying to cut or freeze their wages, slash their health care, force them to work unrealistic hours, and replace nurses with unlicensed supervisors.

"We are still fundamentally far apart on the negotiations," said council spokesman Larry Dorman. "But we will continue to meet and talk with management to try to reach a fair and just agreement."

Donna Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, said the organization will continue to negotiate with unionized workers and that contract offers so far have been fair and similar to the pay and benefits presented to nonunion staff.

Morrissey added that the Red Cross is having financial difficulties and has instituted cost-cutting measures over the past year, including laying off roughly 1,000 employees, to deal with a $200-million deficit.

"We believe the contract proposals are justified given the Red Cross's financial situation," Morrissey said.

Connecticut Red Cross employees have been working without a contract since their three-year collective bargaining agreement expired March 31.

Dorman said union members have had three prolonged negotiating sessions with Red Cross officials since February, but all have ended without a deal. They have scheduled a fourth negotiating session Aug. 30, which will occur under the eye of a federal moderator. If that doesn't go well, Dorman said the workers haven't ruled out a strike.

"We'd be disingenuous to say we aren't thinking about it or preparing for one," Dorman said.

Christine Holschlag, a union officer and phlebotomist who has been with the Red Cross for five years, said workers would like to keep their current contracts in place, but the Red Cross is asking them to freeze wages for two years. She said the nonprofit is also trying to reduce their health care and pension benefits, while eliminating registered nursing positions and filling them with less qualified and unlicensed individuals.

"We feel like the Red Cross is trying to bust unions and cut costs on the frontline," Holschlag said. "We have to hang on to our bargaining power. They seem pretty hell bent on giving us what nonunion workers get."

Holschlag said getting rid of registered nurses presents a safety issue to donors. She said the number of RNs who work in blood collection drives in Connecticut has gone from 30 a few years ago to about 13 today.

"Reducing that number any further presents a serious safety issue," said Holschlag, who added that during the last contract negotiations three years ago, union members gave up millions of dollars in concessions.

Holschlag also said roughly 15 union workers have had issues with their dependents being dropped from their insurance coverage "without any justification."

Morrissey said the "Red Cross blood supply has never been safer," and that the organization trains its "workforce to ensure compliance with Food and Drug Administration standards."

Tax records show that the national Red Cross has been having financial difficulties for at least the last three years. In 2007, for example, the nonprofit brought in $3.2 billion in revenue, but shelled out $3.6 billion in expenses, running a deficit of $480 million.

Compensation for officers, directors, trustees and key employees in 2007 was not disclosed in the tax filing. The highest paid non-officer in 2007 was James C. Hrouda, the "executive vice president of biomedical," who made a salary of $443,673 and also earned $32,302 in benefits and deferred compensation and $48,689 in other allowances.

The top non-officers at the nonprofit all made over $245,000 in salary alone in 2007, and 9,297 Red Cross employees were paid over $50,000.

During that same year, the Red Cross spent $1.3 billion in salaries and wages, including $2.6 million for officers, directors and key employees, tax records show.

On July 21, Gail McGovern, president and chief executive of the Red Cross, gave a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and said that the agency's deficit was reduced to $209 million a year ago and has shrunk again to $50 million.

McGovern said the Red Cross cut more than 1,000 jobs at its headquarters and more than 350 positions across the country, and also scaled back bonuses, raises and benefits. McGovern added that she plans to balance the nonprofit's budget next year.

One major problem, union members say, is that national Red Cross officials have become much more corporate in recent years and have taken over contract negotiations that used to be handled by local or regional officials.

Dorman said the Red Cross is making a nationwide effort to crack down on unions and that organized labor organizations from at least eight other states, including California, New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan, are also currently in contentious contract negotiations.

Nancy Newton, who has worked in the quarantine lab at the Red Cross for 32 years, said she has seen a lot of consolidation over the last decade.

Lab testing sites, for example, have been eliminated in certain regions, and the Connecticut district Red Cross was absorbed into a New England regional office years ago.

"Decision making is not being made locally anymore, they are being made by the higher ups," Newton said. "It's led to a lot of frustration from staff."

Newton added that the Red Cross has failed to justify the need for cost cuts and that the union has made "numerous counterproposals with concessions but is continually hitting a stone wall."

"We are the backbone of the organization," Newton said. "We are the ones who do the work."

Labor union spokesman Larry Dorman and Red Cross employees Christine Holschlag and Nancy Newton say the Red Cross is unfairly threatening to cut their wages.


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