SEIU Workers Violate Noise Law, Anger Alta Bates Neighbors

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday November 06, 2008 - 10:05:00 AM

A group of neighbors of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center have always had a good relationship with the hospital’s workers, they say, until early last Wednesday. 

When members of SEIU United Healthcare Workers West descended upon the hospital’s Ashby Avenue campus on Oct. 29 to protest what they called unfair labor practices by Sutter Healthcare, Alta Bates’ parent company, some Prince Street residents complained of being awakened from their sleep at 5:45 a.m. by chanting and screaming with bullhorns. 

Peter Shelton, an area resident, said the noise from the megaphones woke up his entire family, including his 5- and 7-year-old sons. 

Shelton said that when he approached Jonathan Mello, the union’s hospital division representative, to complain about the noise, Mello apologized for it and called the incident an “unintended, unfortunate consequence” but refused to ask the strike leader to turn down the volume. 

“I was cursed, screamed at and touched inappropriately by a striker,” he said. “It is difficult for me to support them under these circumstances.” 

When reached by the Planet Thursday, Mello refused to comment. 

Another neighbor, Laurie Ann Doyle, wrote to City of Berkeley officials, saying that the sound initially reminded her of a woman being abused. 

“The female shouts were so loud and intelligible,” she wrote. “If they had started at 7 a.m., no problem. That would make more sense because that’s when night-shift workers flood out the doors and visitors arrive. Strikers impinging on our rights while fighting for their own is only counterproductive.” 

Doyle said that when her husband asked the strikers to be quieter, he was asked to “find a new place to live.” 

“This is the same as management telling them to get another job,” she said. “The strikers could have had our support, if they had been considerate. History shows that community support can make or break a strike. It’s a sad day in Berkeley.” 

Fred Medrano, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department, said that the union had violated their permit since they were not authorized to start the amplification that early in the morning. 

Medrano said that the city issued the union a special event permit for 8 p.m. to 5 p.m. and a sound permit for 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. 

“I understand their [the neighbors’] concern,” Medrano said. “If there was noise in front of my house I would feel the same way. We will make a note of the problem and, if we get requests for a permit like this in the future, we will have a discussion with the union about the conditions of the permit.” 

John Borsos, vice president of SEIU United Healthcare Workers West, said that the union was open to working with neighbors if a similar problem occurred in the future. 

“When healthcare workers strike, it’s to call attention to a significant problem at the hospital,” he said. “We want to be sensitive to neighbors and patients. I am not aware that any of the residents or neighbors came over and asked the strikers not to make noise. It was a lack of communication.” 

Borsos added that the union wanted to maintain a good relationship with the hospital’s neighbors. 

“Alta Bates has a long history of being insensitive to the needs of neighbors and they are treating their caregivers the same way,” he said. “We have much more in common with the neighbors than we have with Alta Bates.” 

The strike, Borsos said, was scheduled to start all over the Bay Area at 6 a.m. 

“I am not sure that the amplification started at 6 a.m.,” he said. “There might be some noise when strikes start. We sent out notices to the hospital about it.” 

Debbie Pitts, Alta Bates’ manager of public affairs, told neighbors in an e-mail that the hospital had set out letters to area residents Tuesday, alerting them about the strike. 

Shelton said that he had not received any notices and did not know of any neighbors who had. Calls to Pitts were not returned. 

“The biggest concern is nobody is taking responsibility for this,” Shelton said. 

The neighbors affected by last week’s incident said that the beat officer on the scene provided them with inaccurate information, claiming that state law allowed strikers to use amplification at any point during a strike. 

In an e-mail to the neighbors, Berkeley Police Department Chief Doug Hambleton said that the police department was taking responsibility for its officers’ failure to handle the noise complaint appropriately. 

“When I learned of this situation late yesterday, I gave direction to officers that strikers and labor protesters are not exempt from the city’s noise ordinance, in particular the requirement for permits for amplified sound,” he wrote. 

Hambleton added in another e-mail that the city’s Environmental Health Unit, not the police, was primarily responsible for enforcing the noise ordinance. 

“I do know they have been in touch with the strikers, and their behavior the other morning will be factored into future decisions regarding their applications for sound permits as well as any required future enforcement,” he said. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who represents the neighborhood, said, “I am a passionate pro-union activist, but that doesn’t mean you can wake people up in the middle of the night. It’s illegal and irresponsible.” 

Worthington said he would be scheduling a meeting to discuss the neighbors’ concerns.