Jason Wu/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

A Bangs Ambulance sits on the sidelines of Schoellkopf Field during Cornell's game against Dartmouth, on Nov. 12.

November 14, 2022

A Workplace Divided: Bangs Ambulance Workers United and the Fight for Unionization

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When employees at Ithaca’s only ambulance company officially began the unionization process, they were looking for better shift scheduling, protocols, benefits, pay and a 40-hour work week, among other goals tailored toward improving patient care, employee safety and work-life balance. Now, after narrowly winning the Nov. 9 union vote by 22-20, Bangs Ambulance employees face an uphill battle: they must unify the workforce and attempt to improve their working conditions, while also strengthening the new union.

“We had the goal of making our profession viable in terms of pay and the intensity of the work and the amount of hours we have to work in a week, in order to provide better care to our patients at the end of the day,” said Gus Dunn-Hindle, an emergency medical technician at Bangs Ambulance and member of the Bangs Ambulance Workers United organizing committee. “If we’re better rested, if we’re better paid, better prepared, then we are going to be able to do right by our patients.”

Dunn-Hindle added that among workers’ grievances is the discrepancy between the quality of pay and the magnitude of calls to which Bangs Ambulance responds. 

“We, at Bangs Ambulance, run more calls than any other emergency medical agency in the county, by an order of magnitude. We cover roughly 82,000 people and we get paid less than any other agency,” Dunn-Hindle said. “So, we’d like to see an increase in pay that reflects both our training as providers and the intensity of our work in regards to how many calls we run and the kinds of calls we run.”

Issues with pay and benefits have led to even deeper-rooted staffing problems, with EMTs and paramedics suffering from institutional fatigue and leaving their positions, according to Dunn-Hindle. These challenges further fuel workers’ dissatisfaction with current working conditions.

Not all Bangs employees were on board with the push to unionize, which supporting employees  announced to Bangs Ambulance management in early October. Workers against or unsure of unionization voiced concerns about the way their coworkers ran the organizing committee — the group charged with creating the framework for the latent union. Workers mostly agreed that change was necessary in the workplace, but they disagreed on the committee’s method for achieving that change, according to multiple Bangs employees.

Blake Sears, who has been an EMT at Bangs Ambulance for three years, was an original member of the organizing committee but left after becoming dissatisfied with its operations. He leveled charges of secrecy among the committee, which held their meetings in secret, and suggested that a union might not be necessary because company management seemed ready to address workers’ grievances.

“A lot of [employees] are saying we don’t need to pay however much a week to the union people to be there as a failsafe if Bangs doesn’t play ball, because at this point, they know they need change and they’re going to play ball,” Sears said. “We’re paying for something now that we don’t even need to use.”

According to Robert Royer, a Bangs Ambulance EMT and member of the organizing committee, secrecy is a necessary evil of organizing.

“I think it’s kind of just the nature of unionizing that you do have to do a lot in secret before you make the announcement to your boss, so that you can not face retaliation preemptively,” Royer said. “So, while it’s a totally genuine critique and a fair thing to feel negatively about, I think it’s a requirement and a necessity.”

Individuals familiar with the matter say that anti-union rhetoric from Bangs management could have played a part in some workers’ negative attitude toward unionization.

Kassidy Slaughter ’24 aided Bangs Ambulance Workers United’s unionization efforts through her work with the People’s Organizing Collective Cornell, a student organization geared toward supporting campaigns for workers’ rights. 

According to Slaughter, management sent workers emails warning them that, if a union was successful, they would not be able to opt in or out of representation meaning they would have no choice but to be represented by the union, regardless of their personal views. Slaughter said that this and other messages from Bangs Ambulance management may have contributed to anti-union sentiments.

“There was a lot of anti-union propaganda being circulated. [In] POCC, a lot of our members are in ILR. We have that knowledge of unions, and we’re able to identify union busting tactics and things that employers say that may not seem like union busting, but they’re really trying to trick workers,” Slaughter said. “We know that, but most workers just don’t.”

In response to these concerns, POCC members helped Bangs Ambulance Workers United create a fact sheet to identify management’s subtly anti-union rhetoric, according to Slaughter. They also published a letter of solidarity signed by almost 20 Cornell student organizations. 

Nick Wilson ’26, member of POCC and the Cornell Labor Caucus, said that Cornell students were in a particularly good position to aid in the campaign for unionization.

“When we encounter these things that are meant to deter us from organizing, how have other campaigns responded in the past? How can we learn from labor history and these things that we’re learning about in our classrooms?” Wilson said. “It’s a way that the Cornell community specifically can be helpful to [Bangs Ambulance Workers United’s unionization] campaign.”

Meghan Bangs, Bangs Ambulance human resource manager, told The Sun that management was simply providing information to staff.

“We had staff members approach us to express their surprise about, and opposition to,

unionization at Bangs Ambulance,” Bangs said. “We provided simple facts about unions and our

business to let our employees make their own decisions.”

Regardless of workers’ reasons for standing against the union, the new union, which is soon to officially operate under the banner of Civil Service Employees Association Local 1000, is now faced with the task of unifying their workforce.

According to Cathy Creighton, director of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations Buffalo office and former National Labor Relations Board attorney, members of the new union must also undertake the work of educating themselves and preparing to bargain.

“The first thing that this union will have to do is rectify this divided workforce,” Creighton said. “Because they lack the experience, they need to do things like educate themselves on the law, what the law requires. They need to educate themselves on the process of bargaining, and they need to continuously build solidarity inside the workplace.”

After the unionization vote becomes officially certified — which will happen by Nov. 19 unless Bangs Ambulance raises challenges — Bangs Ambulance management and members of the union must elect union leadership and negotiate their first collective bargaining agreement, Creighton said. This process includes making requests to access the employer’s finances, personnel policies and other information. The union members will then put together proposals including terms they want to change or codify.

Al Davidoff ’80, labor expert and founding member of Cornell’s United Auto Workers Local 2300 union, said this process can actually bring workers together.

“Often, what happens is there can be a close vote, but then as the workers come together for bargaining, more and more staff join in the process and the support and the numbers grow over time as the relationship becomes more mature and as people unify over common interests,” Davidoff said.

Proponents of Bangs Ambulance unionization are looking toward the future and trying to stay positive, despite strife in the debates surrounding unionization.

“The election is behind us now and the focus is solely on moving forward and trying to get a good contract for absolutely everybody,” Dunn-Hindle said. “It hasn’t been a utopia of harmony, but our focus is on bringing everyone back together and moving forward in a positive manner that reflects the wishes of everybody in Bangs Ambulance.”