Language Barrier

Hennepin County Medical Center's interpreters decided to join a union. They were surprised to learn they were already spoken for.

If mediation doesn't work, the AFL-CIO constitution calls for the matter to be decided by an impartial umpire. And so, in late February, representatives of both unions made the trip to the AFL-CIO's Washington, D.C., headquarters for a hearing. Sign-language interpreter Jill Wright traveled to Washington for the hearing, where, she says, an AFSCME representative testified that the union hadn't talked to the interpreters yet because they were a small group that wasn't high on the organization's list of priorities. "If we're not important," Wright says she wondered, "why do they want us?"

Grina disputes Wright's account. "That is totally incorrect," he insists. "We have organized groups that are smaller than that." He says AFSCME's main beef was that the Newspaper Guild was attempting to break off a chunk of workers from an already defined group of potential union members. "What they were trying to do was take a piece of the whole, and that was our objection," he says. "Our concern is that fragmenting the bargaining unit would weaken the organization and would create scenarios where groups of employees could be played off one another in negotiations."

On March 9 the AFL-CIO determined that AFSCME's agreement with the county took precedence over Demgen's conversations with the interpreters. Having AFSCME potentially represent the interpreters, the ruling held, was "in the best interest of the labor movement, given AFSCME's strategic approach to organizing the unit in question and its substantial presence in public-sector hospitals in Minnesota." Demgen and the Newspaper Guild immediately stepped aside.

Union organizer Leif Grina recently tried to extend an olive branch to medical interpreters at Hennepin County Medical Center. Too little, too late, they replied.
Tony Nelson
Union organizer Leif Grina recently tried to extend an olive branch to medical interpreters at Hennepin County Medical Center. Too little, too late, they replied.

The medical interpreters, however, don't consider the issue settled. Forty-four interpreters have signed a petition arguing that they deserve to be the ones to decide which union should represent them. They also adopted a slogan: "They didn't AFSCME." As a group, the interpreters are still concerned that AFSCME isn't very familiar with interpreting issues. They say they feel like pawns in a game that has little to do with their own needs and concerns. "It just seems that there's more to this story," says Valdés. "There's major politics going on here. It's David versus Goliath."

Another Spanish interpreter, Erick Biard, agrees. "What it smells like is somebody wants to formulate a contract without our interests or input," he says. "Marty [Demgen] is the first guy to help us, to organize us. AFSCME just doesn't want another union on their turf."

On April 6, nearly a month after the AFL-CIO ruling and ten months after AFSCME signed its agreement with the county, Grina sent a letter to the interpreters expressing regrets over the conflict with the Newspaper Guild. "During the course of events we have learned some hard lessons," he wrote. "Apparently our organizing program at the hospital has not been well communicated." AFSCME, Grina says, hopes to have the interpreters organized by midsummer; under AFL-CIO rules, the larger union has exclusive rights to organize the interpreters until March 2002.

But the interpreters say they can't envision embracing AFSCME now. "There's no desire whatsoever to respond to that letter from anyone in the group," says Wright. "It was one more time they've offended us." (She and others also question the timing of Grina's conciliatory letter, which arrived a few days after City Pages contacted AFSCME for this story.)

Barred by the AFL-CIO order from talking to the Newspaper Guild, the interpreters are trying to plot their next move, but many confess that they don't know what to do. They could petition the state to form an independent union, unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO, but doing so would likely require some expensive legal help. They also have the option of waiting until AFSCME's rights to organize them under the AFL-CIO ruling expire in March 2002. In any case, calling AFSCME doesn't appear to be on the list of options.

"The nature of our profession is sensitivity and communication," adds Biard. "You've got to watch what you say and how you say it."

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