Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Mutating Playbook

Several recent events reminded me of a subtle change in the tactics being used by the SEIU in its corporate campaign against BIDMC. You may recall that I have described this kind of campaign as an attempt to denigrate the reputation of the hospital and its trustees in order to put pressure on the institution to agree to concessions in the organizing process that would eliminate many of the protections contained in the National Labor Relations Act. This is a long-standing pattern used by the SEIU in several jurisdictions.

Here's the mutation to the playbook. The SEIU has apparently decided that it does not want to look like it is trying too hard to hurt the reputation of the hospital. Why? Well, I am guessing that there are two reasons. The first is a legal one. Unions are being sued by companies who are alleging that the union's corporate campaign against the employer constitutes illegal racketeering. Here is an excerpt from the December 10, 2007, Wall Street Journal Online:

Employers are using laws originally aimed at organized crime to combat aggressive union organizing efforts that they claim amount to extortion.
Two lawsuits filed by employers in the past two months invoked the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, to claim unions have tried to damage their reputations and businesses through public-relations campaigns and other tactics. In both suits, the companies claim the unions are spreading false and damaging information through flyers and the Internet and at demonstrations.

Perhaps the SEIU is particularly worried that a motion to dismiss one of these case was denied by a Federal court.

The second reason might be that, in a town like Boston, which is so dependent on the health care sector, there is not much taste among public officials and others for destroying the reputation of one or more highly respected academic centers.

So, does this mean an end to the corporate campaign? No way. It just means that the attacks are more subtle and are always put in the context of improving the health care delivery system. And they will tend to be directed personally at trustees and other individuals, rather than at the hospital, per se. Indeed, first, there will often carefully be a statement along the lines that the hospital does many good things for patients and the community. This way, no one at the SEIU can be accused of wanting to hurt the hospital.

Nice work guys. This is clever and thoughtful and is designed to switch attention away from the union's unabated desire to put pressure on the employer to concede to changes in the federal organizing rules. Instead, the union has arrogated to itself the role of public defender -- citing alleged accounting errors, alleged failures of trustees to carried out their fiduciary role, and alleged failures of licensing, regulatory, and other bodies and public accounting firms to do their jobs properly. In today's post-Enron, post-subprime-loan corporate environment, such allegations are meant to leave the public thinking, "Well, there must be something wrong." Because the rules surrounding hospital finances and other matters are so complicated, no simple answer -- no matter how accurate -- can be given by the institution in a way that effectively rebuts each accusation in the public eye. And then, of course, it gets picked up and repeated every time the union files a new allegation.

Stay tuned for more mutations in forthcoming chapters of this saga. But, rest assured, the playbook is still in use.

11 comments:

Maureen said...

Good Morning
Was wondering if there will be any comments on the recent NYTimes article about SEIU sending letters to several members of BIDMC's Board of Directors?
Thank you

Paul Levy said...

An excellent example of twisting things in the manner I have just discussed. First, an unfounded assertion by the SEIU of a so-called financial irregularity. Next, followed by an SEIU assertion that board members should follow rules and regulations that do not apply to non-profits -- implying that doing so would have led to fuller disclosure of this kind of issue.

All part of a longer term plan to throw mud. Notwithstanding that a very good reporter wrote a fair story on the matter, deep in people's consciousness, some will wonder what went awry at BIDMC. Hence, from the SEIU's point of view, objective accomplished. Look forward to them raising the issue over and over and now citing the NYTimes story as "proof" that there is a problem.

When the truth is that the accounting treatment of this particular item was made with approval of our external auditors. And further, that the truth of the matter is that we never changed our long-standing policy of actually delivering charity care to the community.

Anonymous said...

Does the union have a blog detailing their view of this?

Anonymous said...

This story was picked up on the Health Care Blog a few days ago, FYI. And thanks, I thought I had a good vocabulary, but I learned a new word - arrogate! I'm impressed!

Paul Levy said...

Reposted by me for eve, who put this comment into the wrong post below:

I suspect if Beth Israel would recognize the workers' rights to unionize and come to the table and bargain fairly, the "playbook" would go away.

And my reply,

Eve,
We do recognize the workers' right to organize. That has never been at issue.

Anonymous said...

Hi
I'm trying to catch up on your background w/ the union. Do your hospital did not sign a neutrality agreement? Is that the correct?

Paul Levy said...

Neither we nor, as far as I know, have any of the other major Boston hospitals.

Anonymous said...

I read your blog avidly, and as I read your posts on this topic, I worry that at the end of the day if the SEIU achieves their goal and you need to sit down to the bargaining table with them, that you will have backed yourself into a corner. You are assuming malignant intentions in every portion of what the SEIU does. They do play hardball, and I'm sure it's unpleasant to be at the receiving end of that.

On the other hand, they're also one of a very few examples of unions who are successful in many respects, including supporting broader political and social change--something many unions long ago gave up on in favor of much more narrowly defined self-interest. They have a larger political interest in improving and supporting healthcare and access to healthcare. I worry that if you don't see the subtleties of their political positions, you will not be able to productively bargain with them later.

For example. The other reason that they don't want to badmouth the hospital in itself is that they want to make sure they do not damage the dignity and reputation of the workers they're trying to organize, nor offend them. That doesn't have anything to do with the "playbook" you describe--it has to do with their core mission of organizing.

If you can't see the subtleties of your opponents' positions and politics, you'll be much more poorly equipped to do well in negotiations with them. I think the SEIU has a pretty good chance of coming to the bargaining table with you. When that happens, it will not be in your interest or the hospital's interest to simply see them as a malignant strong-arm organization. You and the union will both share the same interest in supporting the reputation of the people who work in your hospital. I think that common ground will be a useful starting point if you reach the point of needing to negotiate, instead of battle.

Paul Levy said...

There is nothing subtle about the kind of corporate campaign waged by this union, as it has been practiced in many places around the country. That is a separate and distinct issue from whatever positions they make take in the body politic on other issues. As I have noted in a post several months ago, there are times we agree on general political issues. I do not assume malignant intentions in everything the union does. I simply, here, explain their tactics as I see them and as they have been evident in many other places. The logical extension of your suggestion is to reward bad behavior. That has never worked in any setting.

Anonymous said...

It's so strange that you would include the lawsuit concerning Smithfield. Smithfield has mistreated their workers and you don't see a problem with SEIU and other organizations trying to change that. I guess the workers at your hospital should be worried if you think Smithfield is innocent.

Paul Levy said...

I wasn't talking about their tactics, and I did not say anything about whether they are doing the right things for their workers.