Language Barrier

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

Cuban immigrant Alef Valdés has been working at Hennepin County Medical Center since August, interpreting Spanish between medical staff and patients. "It's absolutely essential," says Valdés of his work. "If you can't understand what the doctor's telling you and the doctor can't understand what you're telling him, you might as well stay home."

Valdés is right, say HCMC administrators. Increasingly, the hospital can't serve its patients without its 54 full- and part-time medical interpreters, who speak a host of languages, including Arabic, Bosnian, Somali, Hmong, and Lao. One-quarter to one-third of all HCMC patients now need interpreters, according to HCMC administrator Jeff Spartz, and demand is increasing. In February alone, Spartz says, 9,000 patients needed an interpreter; in March that number jumped to 13,000.

And, say Valdés and about a dozen other HCMC interpreters who gathered recently to talk about their jobs, it's terrific that the county is committed to making sure that non-English speakers have the best possible access to health care. But the increasing workload also presents challenges for the interpreters: The county doesn't have clear job descriptions for their work; there's been frequent turnover in management; and most troubling, they say, at times they feel backed into ethical corners over the cultural and religious issues that crop up in the course of their job.

So when the interpreters caught wind of plans by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to organize several groups of technical and paraprofessional Hennepin County employees, they realized they liked the idea of a union. But the interpreters didn't think AFSCME was the right union; they wanted to be sure they would be represented by a group that was familiar with their unusual job. They contacted the Arlington, Virginia-based Translators' & Interpreters' Guild, which referred them to its parent organization, the Newspaper Guild.

In early December a couple of interpreters met with Martin Demgen, an organizer for the Minnesota Newspaper Guild/Typographical Union. In January, following a few more meetings, Demgen's efforts to organize the HCMC interpreters were in full swing. The workers, he recalls, were enthusiastic and as far as he and the potential union members were concerned, things were going great. "Within two days we had over 80 percent of the group signed up," he says. "Anything over 65 percent, you're generally going to win your election."

On January 11 Demgen filed a petition with Minnesota's Bureau of Mediation Services, a routine step unions take when they want to be recognized as representing any group of workers. That same day Demgen also met with HCMC's Spartz, who suggested that the interpreters might be covered under an agreement between the county and AFSCME.

To sort things out, Demgen met the next day with Leif Grina, organizing director of AFSCME Council No. 14, which represents some 14,000 workers locally, including about 700 employees at HCMC. Grina told Demgen that in May 2000 AFSCME had signed an agreement with Hennepin County giving the union the right to attempt to organize a group of 300 county employees that includes the interpreters. This kind of gentlemen's agreement between a union and a large employer is an increasingly common tactic in labor organizing and does not commit the employees to a particular union, nor can it be used to strip workers of their right to look for representation elsewhere. Instead, Grina and Demgen say, this kind of deal simply gives AFSCME an advantage in recruiting prospective members, boosting membership, and streamlining organizing. (For Hennepin County, HCMC's Spartz adds, it's simpler to negotiate with fewer, rather than more, unions.)

Demgen was startled. He had repeatedly asked the interpreters if AFSCME was trying to organize them, and he had been told no. The interpreters were perplexed, too. Russian interpreter Val Scheglowski had met with an AFSCME representative in the summer of 1999 but detected little interest from the organizer. After the meeting, he says, "I didn't hear from them and they haven't heard from me." Since then, the interpreters say, they've heard nothing from AFSCME and they were unaware of the larger union's plans to organize them.

Agreement or not, AFSCME still has to organize any workers it hopes to unionize, explains Brendan Cummins, a labor lawyer with the Minneapolis firm of Miller & O'Brien. "Hennepin County can enter into a procedural agreement with a union without employee input," says Cummins. "Where the employees get their input is whether they want the union to represent them or not. If they don't sign the cards, then AFSCME's out."

The problem lay with the internal policies of the labor federation to which both the Newspaper Guild and AFSCME belong, the AFL-CIO. Federation members can't compete with each other for the same potential members. Demgen and the Newspaper Guild argued that the interpreters are a unique group of employees who should be represented by their own bargaining unit, one with experience representing other professionals in the same field. AFSCME, which represents a large number of public employees, argued that the interpreters would be better served by the bigger unit. Since Demgen had already done a fair bit of organizing, he thought a deal could be worked out between the two unions to let the Newspaper Guild represent the interpreters. But AFSCME disagreed.

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.

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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