A two-year effort by doctors to form a labor union at D.C. General Hospital has ended successfully, with a Superior Court judge rejecting the city's argument that physicians should be barred from unionizing because their jobs are managerial, officials said yesterday.
The decision by Judge Paul R. Webber III on Oct. 15 clears the way for the D.C. government to begin negotiations with the newly formed Doctors' Council of D.C. General, one of a handful of unions in the country representing physicians at public hospitals.
The union effort here among 167 physicians at D.C. General Hospital -- along with a second union drive among 200 doctors employed by other city agencies -- is part of a small but growing interest in collective bargaining among doctors prompted by the growth in health maintenance organizations and hospital staffs, according to labor experts.
Doctors at D.C. General, who earn an average of $60,000 yearly, are dissatisfied with the city's $65,000 salary cap, and have complained about workloads and other conditions that they believe hinder efforts to provide quality patient care at the financially ailing 500-bed public hospital in Southeast Washington, according to Abraham Zwerdling, the union's lawyer.
The city had appealed a 1984 ruling by the D.C. Public Employee Relations Board that upheld the doctors' right as city employes to join a union. The governing D.C. General Hospital Commission had argued that physicians' jobs were supervisory because the hospital was run under a system of "collegial governance" in which doctors shared in decision making. The commission said formation of a union would interfere with orderly hospital operations.
After hearing legal arguments on this issue, arbitrator Jerome Ross, appointed by PERB to hear the case, held that only a dozen hospital department heads were actually supervisors excluded from union representation. The PERB adopted the arbitrator's ruling, but the city appealed the case twice to Superior Court, with Judge Webber upholding PERB in a 13-page ruling.
Webber said a review of the evidence supported the PERB conclusion that "the day-to-day work of the physicians primarily concerns individual patient care, instead of management." Doctors serve on hospital committees, but these groups only recommend policy and do not manage the operation, he said.
"We are very pleased" at the judge's ruling, Zwerdling said, "but it is outrageous that it has taken us two years" because of several legal appeals by city officials since doctors petitioned for a union in October 1983.
Donald H. Weinberg, director of the D.C. Office of Labor Relations, disputed the union's contention that the city has been stalling, saying that the governing D.C. General Hospital Commission had "some legitimate concerns" about whether doctors' membership in a union would hinder hospital operations.
"We never had questions about whether or not to bargain" with the union, Weinberg said. "Management here was pursuing its rights to appeal, and management can not always be chastised for pursuing its rights."
Weinberg said the city would begin negotiations this week, with the first step being a pay and benefit study required by city law, which will compare the District's levels with those in other jurisdictions.
The District now joins New York, Los Angeles, and several other major cities whose doctors have formed unions.
Nationwide, more than 15,000 doctors belong to unions, most of them in California, where the Union of American Physicians and Dentists represents doctors at many health maintenance organizations, according to Robert Guthrie, assistant director of the AFL-CIO department for professional employes.