Tension overshadows Med Center’s celebration

by Kelly Wittman

Fairview-University Medical Center employees and administrators gathered in a lull before the union election storm Thursday to celebrate the first 100 days of the merger between two hospitals.
The National Labor Relations Board has not set a date for hospital workers to vote on whether to retain the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees as their union representative, but already both Fairview and AFSCME are working to win union-eligible employees’ support.
And though many of the staff gathered to praise the accomplishments of the past few months, other members of the hospital community are less impressed with Fairview’s management.
Don Berglund, senior vice president and chief operating officer for Fairview, said the last 100 days have been about discovering the unique characteristics of each hospital and blending the two institutions into a new entity while preserving all the strengths of both.
Teri Mercer, a nursing assistant who was previously employed by University Hospital, said that she hasn’t noticed much difference in the past few months as a Fairview employee. In fact, she said, she likes the Fairview’s benefit package better than the University’s.
Many University Hospital employees were represented by AFSCME before the hospital merger was finalized Jan. 6, but because Fairview is a private entity, the union needed to be reorganized under different private-sector regulations.
But Gladys Mackenzie, a representative for AFSCME, said there is a lack of respect for employees, especially since Fairview hired management consulting firm Management Science Associates, what she calls a “union-busting firm.”
MacKenzie said she wonders how there can be respect for employees’ needs when a firm refers to union-organizing employees in its handbook as “Anita Absent,” “Toni Tardy” and “Edgar Ego.” The handbook also refers to managers and those who support management as “Mr. Paul Progress” and “Loretta Loyal.”
Fairview-University Medical Center last month retained the services of Management Science Associates, based in Independence, Mo. The firm has consulted hospitals about union elections in every state in the nation.
But Jean Tracy, spokeswoman for the medical center, said that Management Science Associates is not here as a union-busting firm, but rather as a support for communication between workers and management.
Ruth Bettendorf, activist for the AFSCME unit that represented hospital employees, said she and other medical center employees who are eligible for the union election received a letter that should be considered as tampering.
The letter, which had the letterhead of the medical center’s human resources department on it, calculated how much each employee would pay for union dues from now until their retirement. The letter might have been on human resources stationery, but it is clearly a Management Science Associates tactic, Bettendorf said.
Furthermore, she said, the letters were hand-delivered by employees’ supervisors.
“A lot of people were offended,” Bettendorf said.
Sending out letters that use such strategies as dues calculation is a common union-busting practice, MacKenzie said.
Management at Sacred Heart General Hospital in Eugene, Ore., sent a similar letter to employees in 1992 while the consulting firm was providing services to the hospital. The union was voted down that year, and there is currently no AFSCME chapter at that hospital.
Beverly Mayhew, a spokesperson from Sacred Heart, said the firm provided great advice to their organization that helped improve communication between managers and workers.
“They’re not a union-busting organization. We hired them to help our managers be better communicators, and they had some really helpful suggestions,” she said. AFSCME representation was defeated at Sacred Heart by an almost two-to-one vote, Mayhew said.
But although Management Science Associates states in its newsletter, The MSA Report, that its philosophy is that union representation is both unnecessary and avoidable, the firm also says being union-free means management must accept responsibility for meeting the reasonable needs of employees.
But the medical center’s retaining of the union consultant is not the only concern AFSCME representatives have. Fairview just announced an across-the-board raise of 3 percent for medical center workers. MacKenzie said this constitutes an unfair labor practice, as the raise will be given as a lump sum at about the same time as the union election is expected to take place in early May.
Bettendorf said this is another Management Science Associates tactic — to get the union to file an unfair labor practices suit, and therefore appear to be agitators. But AFSCME has no intention of filing such a charge, she said.
“The union’s feeling is that so many have been hurt so badly by the merger that they need the 3 percent,” Bettendorf said.
Tracy said the raises were not timed to coincide with the union election but instead to coincide with other Fairview employees at the time they would be receiving their bonuses. The Fairview calendar year starts May 1, she said, and since former University Hospital employees just came on staff in January, it is too early for them to receive a regular review and salary increase.
Hospital administrators decided that former University employees deserved some sort of a raise, so this is how they decided to do it, she said.
“I think it’s ironic that at first AFSCME was complaining about a pay cut, but now they’re complaining about a pay raise,” Tracy said.
Keith, who works in environmental services but wished to have his last name withheld, said that Fairview’s pay increase still doesn’t make up for the cut he took in the merger. Even with the 3 percent bonus, Keith said, he is still thousands away from making up what he lost from that pay reduction.
Keith and Marlene, another medical center employee, said the letters have made them more resolute about supporting a union.
“We need one desperately,” Marlene said.