Rally seeks more information on merger

by Shannon Hahn

More than 125 University union workers, students, faculty and union representatives rallied Thursday in front of Coffman Memorial Union to protest the planned merger between Fairview Health System and University Hospital and Clinic.
Protesters wanted to send a message to the Board of Regents and the public that the merger shouldn’t happen, and if it does employees should be protected, said American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees representatives. AFSCME sponsored the rally.
The crowd periodically yelled chants like, “Hey hey, ho ho, corporate greed has got to go.” Some carried signs with messages such as, “It’s not a fair view from here.” Speakers included union representatives, a Progressive Student Organization member, a local health care researcher and a University Hospital doctor.
Academic Health Center Provost Frank Cerra responded to the protest in an interview after the rally. “I think the merger would be a great benefit to the state of Minnesota.” The merger would help keep a patient base in the hospital for education and research, he said. In fact, Cerra said, the alternative to the merger is closing the hospital.
Ruth Bettendorf, president of AFSCME Local 1164, called the rally a “wake-up call” for students, faculty, staff and Minnesota citizens to question the merger.
Bettendorf asked people to call the regents and demand public hearings about the merger immediately, not after it has taken place. “Secrecy will only cause more chaos,” she said. “Once we lose this, we will never get it back.”
AFSCME cut off talks with the University on April 23 concerning the merger. Union workers don’t want to be “playing into their hand,” Bettendorf said. She added that if the University is providing unions with even minimal information, University officials are able to tell the regents they are discussing the issue with union workers.
But not everyone agrees union members aren’t getting enough information about the merger.
“You would be amazed at the amount of information given to the union,” said John Erickson, director of Employee Relations and Compensation for the University and one of the people involved in merger discussions with unions.
But Erickson said he can only speak for the human resources department, which, he added, has given the unions as much information as it can. “We’ve engaged in a number of conversations on various issues,” he said. But that doesn’t mean the unions and University officials agree on all the issues, he added.
Bettendorf also told the crowd the University Hospital employees she represents could be facing substantial income losses. About 600 employees could be laid off in the planned merger.
Hospital workers also haven’t been told whether they would retain benefits such as the regents’ scholarship, she added.
Dr. David Hunter, head of the University’s radiology department, told the crowd he supports the University Hospital workers. He said the way the workers are being treated is not only an example of corporatization, but of “businessification.”
He defines the term as a process that is managed from the top down, displays greed and lacks ethical concern.
“Businessification” has some good results such as improving some medical services and implementing common medical standards for certain procedures nationwide, he said. But it can also lead to devaluation of medicine and academia, he said.
He called on the crowd to take several actions ranging from maintaining their own values to fighting for their rights. He also said workers should strike if need be. “Even in medicine,” Hunt said, “I don’t think it’s something you should not do if it serves a just cause.”
In reaction to the rally, Thomas Reagan, University Board of Regents chairman, said the regents are sympathetic to the cause of the University Hospital employees. He said he hopes if the merger is finalized, it will be done in a way that is “least offensive” to all parties involved.
But, he added, he still thinks it is important for the merger to happen since there is a possibility University Hospital could close if it falls through.