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The tension between worker rights, corporate profits and the high cost of living in Cambridge came up repeatedly Monday at the City Council’s first business meeting of the new term. The council – including four first-time members – heard the first details on a study looking at how commercial development affects city housing and unanimously approved four policy orders from councillor Leland Cheung:

bullet-gray-smallSupporting the city’s low-paid adjunct professors in unionizing at Lesley University.

bullet-gray-smallWarning the Sanofi Genzyme biotech company to stop laying off workers by shifting janitorial services to lower-paying, non-unionized companies.

bullet-gray-smallBacking limits on how many patients can be cared for by registered nurses, as well as supporting regulations reining in executive compensation and redirecting “excess profits” toward “essential health care services.”

Health care

“The consolidation of hospitals into large corporate entities has put the focus of profit and higher compensation for CEOs above patient care and safety, [but] research has shown no link between excessive CEO compensation and a number of important quality care benchmarks, such as mortality rates and readmissions,” Cheung wrote in a policy order urging support for a state-level Hospital Profit Transparency and Fairness Act. It would look at hospitals getting significant amount of public money and penalize each “that pays its CEO compensation more than 100 times greater than the annual compensation paid to a full-time employee earning minimum wage or than the lowest paid full-time employee.”

In supporting that act and the Patient Safety ballot initiative proposed by the Coalition to Protect Massachusetts Patients, Cheung cited the benefits of having fewer patients per nurse: cutting health care costs by as much as 30 percent, along with ensuring fewer patients have to return for treatment when they relapse.

Susan Wright Thomas, a Hull resident and a registered nurse at Cambridge Hospital, provided firsthand confirmation of the problem.

“Our patients come from populations that are underserved and at even greater risk for [medical] complications,” Wright Thomas said. Her voice broke as she hinted at the effect understaffing had on the patients in her care: newborns in the neonatal unit. “These readmissions are costly in terms of dollars, but they are even more costly because they are accompanied by worry, fear and disruption in families.”

“Massachusetts hospitals have among the highest readmission rates in the nation … our state wastes more than $700 million each year on these readmissions,” she said, citing federal and state studies. “Our own hospitals in the Cambridge Health Alliance were among the group of hospitals getting the highest penalties from the Medicare program for excessive readmission of our patients.”

Cleaning services

The move by Sanofi Genzyme threatens some 150 janitors belonging to the Service Employees International Union, Cheung said, noting that in the spring the biotech switched to a non-union cleaner in Canton and Framingham that kept four workers but dropped about 60.

“Genzyme is going to do it again, to 150 workers,” said Matilde Martins, who told councillors she cleaned for 14 years in Canton before losing her job and health benefits in October.

“I depend on this job greatly. I have two daughters who are college students, and I support them as much as I can so they can focus on their studies,” according to a letter read into the record for a Genzyme worker who identified the job as his family’s sole income. He said he knew 25 co-workers who were in similar situations. “These families will be an additional burden on the unemployment system. Non-union companies continue coming to Massachusetts, a very expensive state, and are paying workers miserable wages.”

It’s a problem the council has seen repeatedly in recent years, including at the Hyatt hotels in 2010 and with several sites’ contractors in 2012, but Cambridge’s own contracts have been as much cause for concern. The council had to urge respect for union members from city contractors Eastern Bus Co. and M&M Cleaning last year.

Adjunct faculty

One speaker Monday noted the significance of educators with advanced degrees finding themselves in essentially the same position as maintenance and janitorial staff.

“You should view this as a signal example of how bad the economy has gotten for working people in this country when essentially its highest-educated citizens are now basically making minimum wage,” said journalist and Lesley University adjunct professor of communications Jason Pramas. “If we can’t a draw a line in the sand with these kinds of jobs, what are we going to do for janitors and others in more traditionally working-class jobs?”

A fellow adjunct at Lesley, Norah Dooley, called the part-time teachers – which education media say make up about 70 percent of faculty at all colleges, and is more than 65 percent of faculty at Lesley  – “unwilling accomplices in what’s beginning to look like a very classy, but still a Ponzi scheme kind of thing that corporate higher education is becoming.”

Her comment that education had seen a shift in resources from instruction to management echoed the concerns over health care chief executives’ rising pay even as nurses had to give less time to a growing number of patients.

“When a union organizer stopped by my classroom this fall,” Dooley said, “I jumped at the chance to join SEIU. I’m eager to make a difference, even though I’m as vulnerable as any day laborer” to being replaced.

Jillian DeMair, who has a Ph.D. and teaches part-time at all three of Cambridge’s learning major institutions, agreed that unionizing adjunct faculty would help smooth problems such as the surprise loss of income when classes are dropped from a semester schedule after too few students enroll.

Lesley is neutral on the unionization efforts, the educators said. Ballots go out Jan. 31 and are due back to the National Labor Relations Board by Feb. 21 for a Feb. 24 count. Tufts University adjuncts approved unionization in September.

“The cost of living in the Boston area is 32 percent higher than the U.S. average,” Cheung’s policy order said. “Adjunct professors in the Boston area should be paid fair wages and benefits that allow them to support themselves and their families.”