SHARE Member in the Spotlight: Debra Clark

Deb Clark, standing for a strong contract
on the University Campus
As we come up on SHARE's 20th Anniversary, we're reflecting on how far our union has come.

After our most recent contract negotiations, I sat down with Deb Clark, a long-term UMass Memorial employee and SHARE union leader. She’s got a unique perspective on our contract and negotiations. Deb is a veteran negotiator and member of the SHARE Executive Board. Incidentally, in the past, she’s also been laid off from the hospital three times, and has intimate familiarity with SHARE’s work-security policy.

SHARE’s been working to improve UMass Memorial for twenty years, and, in spite of our successes, our hospital often isn’t a happier place. What does Deb Clark think about that? Is there reason to be more optimistic now?

As she points out, one optimistic note is that the hospital’s commitment to working with SHARE to improve the culture for employees is now spelled out in our contract: “We have their full support to make sure that these things happen. They are committed to doing it,” she said.

I interviewed Deb because I wanted to know, from her perspective, now that our new contract is being implemented: what does she think of the work that we’re doing? Where does it go from here? If you know her, you won’t be surprised that Deb has her own ideas about SHARE’s outlook in the years to come. Here’s our full conversation . . .

Kirk Davis
SHARE Staff Organizer

KD: Debbie Clark! Where do you work and what do you do all day?

DC: I work in Lakeside A, the CDU [Clinical Decision Unit]. I'm the unit clerk, and we're pretty busy down there. We're constantly busy, moving, doing something different every minute.

KD: I don't see how it would be anything else there. You and I have been on the SHARE negotiating team at least a couple of times before. How many negotiations have you been in?

I think this is my third negotiations that I've been in, so . . . three.

KD: Since you've been in negotiations before: what were you expecting this time around?

I really didn't know what to expect this time around. They [the Interest-Based Bargaining principles] were all new ideas to us, that we had been trained in and worked with, and it was a kind of learn-as-you-go kind of experience, so we weren't really sure what we were in for.

KD: We did learn . . . we had formal training and a great facilitator in Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, is that the kind of thing that you're getting at?


KD: We've always attempted to have a kind of informal Interest-Based negotiation approach, and every time we negotiate with the hospital it's different. We're always negotiating with a different negotiating team . . . a different CEO, for example, and different leaders in Labor Relations. And we've had varying levels of success with that approach. What would you say about past negotiations that would make you expect one thing or another?

Well, I think past negotiations were pretty cut-and-dried. It was "yes, no." "Yes, no." It was pretty formal. You proposed what you proposed, and they said "no." You know? SHARE tried again, management said "no." It was pretty discouraging, but by your second set of negotiations, you kind of knew that that's how it pretty much went.

This one here, we were very hopeful that it was going to be different, and it turned out to be great compared to the beginning, the very beginning, what I thought it would turn out to be. I didn't have much hope at the beginning. I knew our team was doing a great job, but I didn't have much faith that the other side really believed in it very much. That was my first opinion of it.

KD: That makes a lot of sense . . . I mean, we hadn't negotiated with -- well, a few of these people we had negotiated with before -- but they had new lead negotiators, and we didn't know what to expect. Were there particular things that started to change your mind or build trust? Was it a lot of little things? Was it one big thing that created trust? How did your change of mind happen?

Well, I think as I saw them starting to . . . maybe not totally agree with what we were saying, but at least be open to our ideas, and what we brought forth to the table. At the beginning, I don't think they knew what to do, so I don't think they were eager to play into it, but as time went on, and as we worked with them and built relationships with them, it got much better, they were trying, or at least most of them were trying, to try to come to an agreement that we could all agree to.

KD: This was a bigger group that we've ever negotiated with, on both sides, than we've ever had before. I mean, part of the difference to me felt like there was a big big cast of characters, and lots of cats to herd, in any conversation we had, and that things started to get a little bit smoother when we started breaking down into some of the Side Tables and Follow Up Groups. Which of those did you participate on?

Teams and Culture, Leaves of Absence, Documenting Department Policies, and Absenteeism . . . quite a realm of different topics.

KD: One of the things that was really good about having lots of little teams was that we got a lot done quickly. I mean, it felt like a lot of work for each little individual team, and when you added it all together, we did a lot of work in a little bit of time. At least, that's how it felt to me, and I was not even on as many groups as you. Was there a group that worked better for you, in a way that would be worth telling people about?

Well I think my smallest group was on Absenteeism, and I think because we all agreed that it was a problem that everyone needed to deal with, and we looked at in a realistic way, we came to a conclusion much faster and easier because it was pretty much laid out straight forward. You know, everybody can't be absent from work and have the work get done. You know, so, that one there was probably the easiest. It was a pretty cut and dried topic.

The Teams & Culture Side Table involves a lot a lot of things, and a lot a lot of people, so that one there took more time, more effort, but it seemed to work out well in the end as well. It was just a lot different from a simple topic group.

KD: So that's the group that was trying to figure out how to make UBT's [Unit-Based Teams] work? We've talked about that on the blog before, and we can point folks toward that.

The thing that's interesting to me, and I heard my co-worker Will saying this too, that he found himself surprised when we came to times when management was advocating for positions that are traditionally union-type arguments, and the union was advocating for things that were more management-type positions.

And you're saying that in your smallest group, you just all kind of were on the same side. You know, there needs to be a certain level of staffing, and we need to have it so people can be out when people can be out, and have the staff to run the place here. But I'm wondering, what surprised you about management's approach to teams? Were they more receptive to the idea of teams? Did they have a different idea of teams?

DC: I think first of all it's a very new topic to everybody, so nobody knows exactly what this is going to entail, but everybody in my group was very enthusiastic.  So, they're all wanting to do it, wanting to do a good job, trying to figure out where they can start it, what projects are going to be achievable so we don't have any failures at the beginning. So I think it's a happy topic, whereas absenteeism . . . not so much. It's encouraging, if it works, which we're going to make sure that it does. It's something that people can look forward to, and look forward to getting involved in. It's not a tedious kind of punishment group like some of the others were. Where, you know, you're doing something bad, what's going to happen to you? This is all good. Doing something good. Trying to make things better.

KD: Can you imagine that kind of topic being discussed in any of our previous negotiations? We've not had a topic that happy in past negotiations, I don't think. How much of that is dependent on the people who are negotiating?

DC: For SHARE’s part, this work just kind of keeps going. For a while, we focused a lot on Patient-Experience Projects. We did a great job. In the end, everyone had good intentions, but it just petered-out, you know? You go along go along go along . . . then okay, where is it? It’s gone. Everyone had great intentions, but there was no means to finish the project off and actually come up with results. So people are skeptical that anything can ever really happen, and truly be good.

KD: I’m really interested in that thing that you said, about in the past things just petered out, even SHARE’s best-intended projects. We had some success, and then other priorities took over. Those improvement projects didn’t have -- I forgot your exact words -- but they didn’t have what it takes to see it through to the end, not in a way that improved the hospital as a whole. You still sound, in spite of that, optimistic, that this round negotiations is turning out some different kind of outcome, that isn’t going to fizzle. You sound optimistic in spite of your experience. Obviously we don’t know yet. What makes you feel like this could actually bring more more effective outcomes than we’ve had before?

DC: Because this time around I have, and I’m depending on this, the words of people like Bart Metzger and Eric Dickson, that we have their full support to make sure that these things happen. They are committed to doing it. Committed to helping us. They’re committed to being a part. If we have questions, and we need to talk to them, speak to them, they’re committed to helping us make this be a success, so it’s the best support we’ve ever had. We’re not out there on our own, we have the words of these people, of the higher-ups at UMass, that they’re there to support us.

KD: That commitment is built into our contract now. And we’ve negotiated a lot of structural things this time. There’s one difference that we knew going in, that there’s a philosophical agreement at the top,  that frontline employees should be involved in decision-making, and it’s in the hospitals initiatives. We shall see.

Let me ask, this is our twenty-year anniversary -- come September, SHARE will be twenty years old. You’ve been here for some of that. How do think that SHARE has made an effect on the hospital in those twenty years?

DC: Well, I was speaking with SHARE before there was a union here. They were calling me at home, I was speaking with all of the organizers. I’ve always been a big pro-union person, and I believe one-hundred percent that SHARE has helped with every aspect of UMass’ people who are involved in the SHARE union. Without them, I mean, we’d be in dire straits. Before SHARE, and I was here for many years before SHARE also. I’ve been 30 years at UMass. We were at the mercy of the State of Massachusetts. So we got whacked quite a few times, and there was no one to turn to, it’s just the way that it was. You just had to accept it, or go work somewhere else. You know, so SHARE has been great as far as I’m concerned. I don’t have a bad thing to say about our union at all.

KD: We’re looking forward to another twenty years more, at least. What’s the best thing that you’d like to see happen, what’s something you’d like to see SHARE do in that 20 years. What would you like to be able to say, “Boy, SHARE really knocked it out of the park by doing . . . x?"

DC: Well I think along with our contract that we just negotiated, keeping our pay competitive, so people can afford to live, so they’re not impoverished. That’s very important to me. Our health benefits, keeping them affordable -- which SHARE always has done -- is very, very important. So, I think those are the two main things. You have to come to work, and you have to be able to do a day’s work for a day’s pay, and make it the best we can. SHARE has helped, and that’s what we’re aiming for with this contract. And having a decent wage, and decent benefits, which we’ve always had . . . you couldn’t ask for more. That’s what you need to work for. You have to have it to be able to survive.

KD: We have held on to really good benefits and had consistent raises for twenty years, and the challenges to those things aren’t going away. If anything, they’re getting harder. So, that makes sense to me that should still be our focus. I just want to say thanks very much. We’ll see you again at negotiations next time . . .  and of course, sooner.

DC: Thank you very much!