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Issue Date:  March 17, 2006

Union battles to organize Chicago hospital chain


A national union has been battling for the last three years to organize some 8,000 workers at Resurrection Health Care, an eight-hospital, multi-clinic system that is one of Chicago’s heavy-hitters.

The organizing effort by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME, has turned into an acrimonious contest, with heated accusations on both sides and extensive community involvement in the battle. Fired workers and the union accuse Resurrection Health Care of union-busting, and AFSCME has led a multipronged assault on the company, questioning not just labor issues but also its charity care and pricing practices. It is calling for a dialogue with Resurrection.

Meanwhile Resurrection, which takes in $1.4 billion in revenue annually, has vigorously defended itself through its law firm, Seyfarth Shaw. Resurrection Health Care accuses the union of a smear campaign. It has refused to engage in dialogue with the union.

The controversy takes on an added religious dimension because the system is owned by two Catholic religious orders, the Sisters of the Resurrection and the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. From the pope on down to local clergy and parishioners, the Catholic church has defended the rights of workers for decades, and in a 1999 document the U.S. bishops specified that hospital workers in Catholic facilities “have the right to organize themselves for collective bargaining and to be recognized by management for such purposes.” Citing these teachings, many in the Catholic community of Chicago have sided with the workers trying to unionize Resurrection Health Care.

Rapid growth

The campaign to organize hourly workers began in 2003. Currently 15 AFSCME organizers are reaching out to workers in Resurrection’s eight hospitals and its more than 100 other health care facilities. Hourly employees include the majority of labor: nurses, physical and respiratory therapists, janitors, food-service workers and other patient-care providers apart from physicians. “Early on, Resurrection Health Care workers came to AFSCME to form a union, with concerns primarily related to quality of care,” said Shannon Gilson, union spokesperson. Following a period of rapid expansion (the system acquired seven hospitals between 1997 and 2005) the system became “corporatized,” said Gilson. Resurrection adopted a more bottom-line approach at the expense of employees and charity care, she said.

Workers have complained of:

  • Short staffing, compromising quality of care because caregivers are overloaded with too many patients and responsibilities. “How many patients have we had fall because no one can answer the call lights because everybody is busy?” a nurse from St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital told an AFSCME researcher. (That hospital is now part of Resurrection’s Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center.) Eighty-five percent of Resurrection nurses reported inadequate staffing in a survey the union conducted in 2005.
  • Inadequate supplies: The same research showed that a third of nurses considered missing or malfunctioning medical equipment and supplies to be a regular problem on their units. “Basic supplies such as gauze, saline and waste disposal bags are often missing at crucial moments,” the report charged.
  • Low wages: Many of the lowest paid workers in the system cannot afford health insurance to pay for health care. The starting wage for the average Resurrection Health Care housekeeper is $8 an hour.

After three years of efforts to bring Resurrection to the bargaining table, a key complaint now is that the system has harassed and fired employees who have supported the union. AFSCME has filed 31 complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. Although Resurrection has not been found guilty of union busting, 22 complaints were found “meritorious” by the Labor Relations Board -- meaning that in 22 instances, there was evidence of wrongdoing and the hospital system was obliged to take steps such as posting notices alerting employees of their right to organize.

Right to organize

In written and spoken word, Resurrection has backed Catholic social teaching and the right of its employees to organize. “We strongly believe in the right to organize,” said Brian Crawford, system spokesperson.

Resurrection disputes the validity of the worker complaints cited by the union and employees. “We are certainly following staffing guidelines; we do plan for understaffing. Health care is a business where you cannot anticipate the demand day-to-day, hour-to-hour. We move people from site to site when needed.”

In regard to supply shortfalls or disrepair, Crawford said, “I’m not aware of that being a problem. … This is a hard job physically and emotionally. It’s in our best interest to give employees what they need, and we work hard to have the best possible working environment. That report [AFSCME’s “The High Price of Growth at Resurrection Health Care: Corporatization and the Decline of Quality Care”] hasn’t got anything to do with the quality of care. It’s filled with inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and it’s flat-out wrong.”

Crawford also pointed out that the union has not been elected. “It would be disrespectful of our employees to enter into a dialogue with an organization that purports to represent them but does not.”

“It’s a Catch-22,” said Fr. Dominic Grassi about Resurrection’s line of reasoning. “The union can’t get a foot in the door, and then [Resurrection Health Care] says, ‘You have not been chosen to be the union of our employees, so we won’t talk with you.’ ” Two years ago Grassi, former pastor of St. Josephat in Chicago, met with a sister in the administration of Resurrection Health Care to discuss a parishioner who was fired from his cleaning job, apparently for favoring the union.

Grassi is one of a number of Catholic priests, nuns and parishioners urging that the Resurrection system honor employees’ rights to organize, to reinstate fired union supporters and to begin talking with the employee organizing committee, HEART/AFSCME. (HEART stands for Healthcare Employees Acting at Resurrection Together.) On Oct. 13, an ad with those demands ran in the Chicago Tribune. It was signed by religious orders, priests and religious, representing more than 180 Chicago Catholic parishes.

St. Sylvester Parish in Chicago was among those listed in the ad. Its pastor, Fr. Mike Herman, has been to rallies, signed petitions and listened to Resurrection management address a priests’ meeting. “I’ve been disappointed that the administration at Resurrection has not been more open to their workers’ right to organize,” he said. “Some of my views come from that meeting. I don’t believe they’re listening. I don’t think they listen to priests, to other religious women or to their workers.”

Lauren Jennings, a union organizer has worked to rally support from church members and parishes. In mid-December, St. Sylvester joined a number of churches that have hosted speakers related to the conflict. Following the event, many parishioners sent postcards to Cardinal Francis George asking him to mediate a dialogue between the two parties. The main message from Catholics seems to be that the two sides should begin talks.

Herman is hopeful that George will respond, although he noted, “I think the cardinal’s instinct is to not jump in whenever there’s a dispute at a Catholic institution. He can’t intervene over every issue at every Catholic workplace.”

Hands-off approach

Jim Dwyer, a spokesperson for the archdiocese, said it is taking a hands-off approach. “The hospitals are independent of the archdiocese. They have their own independent boards of directors. We have not taken a stand on this [union] issue and we are not going to get involved unless they’re doing something that is definitely not Catholic. … This is basically a business issue,” he said. Dwyer acknowledged, however, that the cardinal “has had conversations” about the dispute at Resurrection hospitals and medical facilities.

The attempt to get the cardinal to bring the two sides together may be part of a larger organizing strategy. The union is not limiting itself to labor issues. AFSCME has released reports on the decline of charity care, unequal treatment of the uninsured, and the decline of quality care.

Others are noticing. In an August 2005 letter, 25 aldermen urged the Illinois Department of Revenue to investigate the tax-exempt status of Resurrection Health Care. The aldermen cited concerns about aggressive collection practices, cuts in charity care and discriminatory treatment of the uninsured. A New York Times Magazine article on declining hospital charity featured examples from two Resurrection hospitals. Also, Resurrection is one of several health care networks being scrutinized by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, concerning charitable activities, patient billing and ventures with for-profit companies.

In response, Resurrection is sending Catholic pastors what Herman calls “extreme mailings” -- large quantities of information that Herman said are defensive. Many Resurrection physicians have gone on record in defense of the system’s generosity. (Doctors are not part of the union organizing drive.)

“We provided in 2004 (our 2005 numbers aren’t in yet) $175 million in free care; that is an extraordinary commitment to health care in the community,” said system spokesperson Brian Crawford. “We have liberalized our policies in providing more every year.” Resurrection has published detailed public responses on its Web site to the attacks on its charity care record.

AFSCME spokesperson Shannon Gilson said the unionization drive is important for labor in general because of Resurrection’s size: “If they do the right thing, others will follow.”

Resurrection is hunkered down as well. “They haven’t done any damage to us,” said Crawford. “They’ve spent millions of dollars in their campaign against us, but we’re still here providing health care to people every day.”

Carol Schuck Scheiber is an independent writer and editor in Toledo, Ohio.

Related Web sites
Resurrection Health Care

AFSCME Council 31

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2006

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