A unionization effort is under way at the Community Health Centers of Burlington, where some employees are drumming up support for the cause.
A vote on the matter is scheduled for May 9.
Dr. Peter Gunther, chief medical officer of the nonprofit health center, said employees officially informed the CHCB administration of their intent to organize on April 19, but he’d “heard rumblings weeks before.”
The union, called Community Health United, has launched a campaign seeking support prior to the May vote. Emails obtained by Seven Days show that Community Health United promises “greater transparency, a seat at the decision-making table and pay equity” for employees.
Eligible employees include “non-supervisory, direct medical patient care staff,” such as nurses and medical assistants, the email reads. Other staff can consider organizing in the future, it says.
CHCB was staffed entirely by volunteers when it launched in 1971 as the People’s Free Clinic in Burlington’s Old North End. Today, it operates eight practices on the premise that health care is a human right. Its value statement says CHCB’s staff is its “most valuable asset.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has long championed such clinics, and he has touted his success in securing federal funding for community health centers.
Community Health United has already held several organizational meetings at the homes of two union organizers: Andrea Solomon, a physician assistant with the practice since 2009, and Megan Cronkite, a medical assistant, according to emails obtained by Seven Days. Both work at CHCB’s flagship Riverside Health Center on Riverside Avenue in Burlington.
Neither Solomon nor Cronkite responded to interview requests. Matt McGrath, an organizer with the American Federation of Teachers, Vermont, which is assisting with the unionization effort, declined to comment.
Seven Days also reached out to medical providers whose names, photos and testimonials appear on a Community Health United flyer. None responded.
One CHCB employee spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution at work. She said the union effort is rooted in a conflict over a pay discrepancy but has since expanded to include other concerns, such as medical assistants being saddled with too many responsibilities.
The employee said union reps have gone door-to-door to drum up support. Of 197 eligible staffers, she said, 60 percent would need to vote yes in order to form the union.
She’s still undecided if she’ll join and said the process feels rushed.
“I’m still trying to get to the bottom of what I’m signing up for and what’s hearsay and what’s fact,” she said.
Gunther said he hasn’t seen an official list of complaints or demands from union organizers. He assumes the gripes are symptomatic of the greater issues in primary health care nationwide: Workers are underpaid and overburdened by taking care of sicker patients with fewer resources.
“There’s just too much to do,” Gunther said. “That’s part of the issue, I think, with the folks interested in unionizing: They want to have more quality time with patients, and I agree wholeheartedly.”
In just six years, CHCB has grown from four to eight practices, Gunther added. Over the same time period, the number of patients served has nearly tripled, from 11,000 to 30,000. The health center has had three CEOs in as many years.
“We grew so fast … we probably weren’t as good as we needed to be about listening,” Gunther said.
He doesn't think it’s the right time for staff to unionize given that CHCB is already engaged in a process to relieve some of the employees' concerns. A consultant has been working with CHCB for the last year, he said.
“We’re afraid a union drive will really put the brakes on some excellent work that’s ongoing to try to make patient encounters [and] the providers more satisfied with their daily lives,” he said.
Gunther said he hopes the union will consider delaying a vote to give the administration a chance to address employees' concerns. Kim Anderson, CHCB director of development and communications, said leadership is open to conversation at any time.
“This has been a very respectful process on both sides,” she said.