Friday, August 25, 2006

Union Issues

One of the issues facing many hospitals is the desire of the Service Employees International Union to organize members of our workforce. The SEIU last year announced its intent to do this in the Boston teaching hospitals.

In October, 2005, I wrote to the following message to our staff as part of a fall update on a variety of topics:

"The other major change in the local environment is the announcement by a national union that it intends to organize the workers in the academic medical centers in Boston. I want to make our position clear with regard to this effort and union organizing efforts in general. We intend to follow the law with regard to labor relations, a law that is designed to give a fair opportunity both to employees who favor unionization and those who oppose it. Congress has been very clear that employers have to give workers a fair choice in these matters. Accordingly, we will vigorously oppose any efforts to short-circuit the legitimate process by which employees of this hospital can consider, debate, and vote on this issue. For me the underlying question is whether a union at BIDMC would enhance your ability to deliver the kind of patient care that is so important to all of us, to strengthen our research program, to improve our education programs, to strengthen our ability to serve the community, and to improve our employees' chances for personal and professional development and advancement. I do not believe that it would, and so I intend to advise you against creating a union here. Ultimately, though, the choice will be yours, and we will respect your judgment on that matter if and when the time comes for a fair and free vote on this issue."


Here is a more recent (early August, 2006) email I sent to my staff on the topic:

"On the union front, you may recall that I wrote last fall to inform you that the Service Employees International Union had announced plans to organize workers in the Boston hospitals. They appear to be interested in BIDMC. During the last months and weeks, the SEIU has submitted Freedom of Information Act requests about several of our researchers and research projects funded by the NIH; has submitted an FOIA request at Mass HEFA, the state agency that issues our bonds; and most recently has been conducting telephone surveys of our some of our employees. Some of you may have received these calls. These activities are entirely legal, although you might wonder, as we do, what relevance our peer-reviewed research has to a union organizing process.
In other situations, the SEIU has attempted to get hospitals to agree to bypass or modify the normal union organizing procedure envisioned under the National Labor Relations Act. A normal unionization process consists of getting authorization cards from 30% of the members of a future bargaining unit, followed by a secret ballot election of that group of workers, under federal rules and monitored by the National Labor Relations Board. Each employee, unencumbered by peer pressure or other outside forces, gets to vote "yes" or "no" in the sanctity of a private voting place.
Instead, in some cases the SEIU has pushed for a "card check" system, in which the election process is bypassed once 50% of the workers sign authorization cards, and the management of the hospital agrees to not talk about unionization - a process called "neutrality". In some other instances, the union has agreed to an election, but with the same one-sided "neutrality" terms during collection of signatures and the voting.
My belief is that a topic as important as unionization deserves a free exchange of views. If the management of the hospital agrees to a "neutrality" agreement that limits our ability to discuss the pro's and con's of the issue, that would be at variance with the history and culture of this academic medical center, a tradition steeped in open dialogue and exchange of views.
Let me say again: We believe in free elections in which each employee, unencumbered by peer pressure or other outside forces, gets to vote "yes" or "no" in the sanctity of a private voting place. Thus, we cannot agree to a "neutrality" agreement nor to a system that bypasses the federal NLRB election processs.
In other parts of the country, hospitals that have taken similar positions to ours have found themselves subject to massive public relations attack by unions. The object of these attacks seems to be to denigrate the reputation of the hospitals and to put pressure on volunteer boards of trustees and management to agree to the unions' organizing terms.
We hope and trust that the SEIU will not use these tactics in Boston. It is hard for us to imagine that a union that says that it is dedicated to improving the healthcare system would intentionally undermine public confidence in one of the world's best hospitals. But this has happened elsewhere, so we must be prepared for that eventuality. We will hold fast to our principles and would participate in a union organizing process based on the rules and regulations set forth in federal law, a process designed to protect the rights of all parties. We have too much respect for our employees to bargain away your rights to a free and fair election. We trust the people who work here, and we would respect your judgment should an election be authorized. You earn that trust every day by the way you take care of patients, participate in research, train medical professionals and one another, and support a wide variety of community activities.
In closing, if any of you have concerns or questions about any of these matters, please contact me directly, or your Human Resources representative, or your supervisor."

I would welcome your thoughts about what I have said in both of these notes.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello. I read your comments on the SEIU, and was so pleased to see an intelligent overview of what I believe to be the reality of this union. I work at a Boston based University, and am more or less "forced" to join this Union. I feel that it works hard to create friction among the workers. I resent that my small contribution goes towards the salary of an employee of the union who is more of an agitator than a peace-maker. Thank you for this intelligent coverage of what you're facing.

Diane said...

Thank you so much for the comments on SEIU union. I work at a local University and am "forced" more or less to be a part of this union. I find that it works more to agitate people, than to pacify them. I resent having to pay someone's salary -- someone who is stirring up trouble. I particularly like your manner of discussing this issue, in a non-emotional fashion. I also find that you are able to view both sides, but come out on the side of the issue as I see it!

Patient Dave said...

> I would welcome your comments

Unions are a wonderful and necessary thing when the balance of power is out of whack and people are being abused and have no other recourse. There are industries where workers desperately need protection from truly evil owners. Coal miners come to mind, and Wal-Mart employees are another such class - at a very different level of danger, but with abuses nonetheless.

In cases like that, I wish unions hadn't gotten the bad name that made them lose power. But they did: I've worked at trade shows in Chicago where I wasn't allowed to plug in an extension cord in my own booth; it required a two-man team of electricians, with a minimum 1/2 hour fee. In that case, the balance of power was on the other foot: *I* had no choice, no freedom to do what I saw fit.

I like freedom, I like democracy, I like choice. I think they're all fundamental forces that lead to a better life and a better world. I don't like concentration of power and denial of choice.

If there is to be consideration of a union, for the benefit of workers, it would be hypocritical not to do it by straight-up direct vote. And it doesn't make any sense to do it if there's not a problem.

Paul said...

Well, some unions do not want to have an election because there is a chance they will lose. They also claim that the management will intimidate people into voting against the union. But I can't imagine a faster way to ensure a "yes" vote than for the management to try to intimidate people.

topher said...

"I do not believe that it would, and so I intend to advise you against creating a union here."

If I was within your hospital system, I would like you to explain in some greater detail this quote.

The blog is great, and I hope you continue to receive support for creating it.

Paul said...

Of course: If and when a drive to certify a union at our hospital actually begins, there will be time to discuss and elaborate on the pro's and con's.

Labor Nurse said...

IMHO I believe that nursing unions and the like are destructive. Actually, I think they suck... I have worked in several of Boston's hospitals, and I can tell you that my shortest tenure was at a union hospital. It created an atmosphere of hostility and negative competition. It allows the lazy to become more lax, and punishes the dedicated workers. I lasted all of 5 months in that environment.

It's not just the hospital arena that suffers from unions. My husband works in the trades and is forced into a union. He hates it as well. But he must stay for the benefits while I am in midwifery school.

I am curious as to what the response from your letters to the staff at BIDMC were? What was the concensus of your nursing staff (not management or its hierarchy)? I know that the timing of the SEIU's push into Boston hospital's came at around the same time to the "Code Green" book that focused on the years following the merger of the BI and Deaconness and it's effects on the nursing staff. If you haven't read that book, let's just say it was not painting a pretty picture.

Again, thanks for being the brave CEO in blogosphere. I will be visiting often.

Anonymous said...

I have deep sympathies for organized labor developed from the perspective of having participated in some labor organizing campaigns in the academic health sector. The present system governing union elections is heavily stacked in favor of management and allows enormous degrees of misbehavior by employers -- that happens every single day. Working people are systematically deprived of their right to organize and this is fostered by the current political situation at all levels. I also trained as a physician at the BIH in the 80's and care deeply about the institution and its history -- which includes a commitment to social justice. What I ask you as CEO is "Why can't you simply remain neutral and let your employees decide if they want to organize?" What are you really afraid of? Managements tend to get the unions they deserve -- so start acting like you deserve a good union!

Paul Levy said...

As I have mentioned many times, it isn't a question of my "letting" them decide. Workers have that right under the laws of the US. In fact, I'd like to help preserve that right for them, i.e., to let them vote.

I don't think it is inconsistent to say that I also have a right to offer comments and advice to them on this matter. Whether I am pro, con, or neutral, why shouldn't I offer my opinions? Then, in the privacy of the voting booth, they can decide what they would like to do.

Your last sentence is really interesting. I hope people think through all the implications of what you say.

Anonymous said...

I'm an SEIU member in another industry in another state and I'd be just as happy to be free of it. That said, I watch the world-class hospitals in my city engage in deplorable practices with their secretarial staff that could someday lead to unionization. What should low-level staff do when administration seems to be totally out of touch with what can be accomplished and what's fair to ask of people on a sustained basis?

Anonymous said...

Hi
I was wondering if your hospital did in fact avoid the neutrality agreement? I'm curious as to what next steps you took either way.

Paul Levy said...

As far as I know, none of the major hospitals in Boston have signed such an agreement.

Alicia said...

Labor unions are bad for everyone, they hurt businesses and take away jobs and raises for the people who deserve them. Darn Socialists, stop striking nurses!

Stacy Malone said...

Hey, I know it's a little late.

But seriously, why do you put an apostrophe on "pros and cons"?