Internal Bleeding

St. John's Mercy Medical Center alienated their RNs when they turned to less experienced caregivers to save money. Now they're paying for it.

Miller remembers "looking to the nuns, going, 'Ladies! What happened to the Mercy values here?' But, as they frequently reminded us, we were employees at will. Some girls started seeing copies of their charting show up in their mailbox written over in red, 'You did this wrong,' reviewing stuff months later just to let you know they were watching you."

What IRI hadn't done was educate hospital managers about how labor law forbids interrogation, intimidation, harassment and coercion.

Another early union supporter, Nancy Cook, had worked in psych for 12 years. Four months after the MONA campaign began, she "walked in and found myself transferred to a geriatric unit. The head nurse wouldn't even talk to me about it." On another occasion, Cook says she was summoned from a busy floor and grilled by the director of nursing about the union. "At one point they made the comment that the hospital would never negotiate," recalls Cook. "That's illegal."

Hers was one of the cases cited in a 1996-97 complaint to the National Labor Relations Board. Nurses claimed that the hospital had "interfered with, restrained and coerced its employees in the exercise of their rights," making threats, discriminating against union organizers.

St. John's only penalty was to post a notice for two months, spelling out the labor law and promising to comply. They did so -- in tiny 12-point type.

Inside a year, the MONA campaign ran out of money, steam and courage. So the core organizers, still determined, interviewed the AFL-CIO. And it turned out that the AFL-CIO, a powerful organization whose industrial base is flagging, was just as interested in health care as health care was in them.

A group of St. John's nurses chose the AFL-CIO United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 655, and on a rainy day in April of 1997, they announced their campaign, passing out sopping-wet handbills. They'd already gathered quite a few nurses who'd sat out the first campaign. "What pushed me over the edge was seeing the way they were trying to drive the older, higher-paid nurses away," says Kerry Thacker. "I'd see individuals targeted and punished, taken off committees they'd served on for years. And then it was my turn."

She realized how little recourse she had when she got into trouble for violating patient confidentiality -- a coworker was being treated in the hospital and, out of concern, she mentioned this fact to other nurses. "A few weeks later, my manager came in on her day off, and I got what's called a 'major counseling' -- meaning, one more incident and you're terminated. And if you talk about it to anyone else, you're terminated."

Several nurses understood that to be the policy -- Darlene Crafton, a St. John's nurse for 22 years, says she was told she was "in big trouble for violating confidentiality because I talked about my counseling." Yet, according to Crain, nurses are free to divulge details of their own counseling. It's patient confidentiality the hospital guards -- a good idea, but one that's been pushed so hard that many nurses are scared to talk specifically about anything connected to patient care, even without names.

The UFCW campaign's been fervent, and though they need only 30 percent to file for an election, workers estimate they've already gathered signatures from more than half of the nurses. They can't learn the official total until they file, at which time the hospital must release a list and negotiate which categories of nurses will vote. Any day now (symbolically, the nurses are hoping for the first week of May, which is National Nurses Week) the UFCW will file, and once the procedural wrangling ends, St. John's nurses will decide by secret ballot whether to unionize.

This time around, the fight's been milder, subdued by the presence of a powerful national union. Experience helped, too -- now the administrators know their legal limits, and the nurses know their rights. "The first time we leafleted the hospital, security said, 'You can't do that,' and I said, 'Oh yes we can,'" recalls Prade. "We didn't know we had a right to be there until the UFCW told us." On another occasion, a supervisor approached nurses who were passing out union literature (perfectly legal outside patient-care areas) and asked them to leave, telling them it was "very unprofessional." They refused.

Overall, though, the hospital's treading carefully -- Crain says they consult frequently with their labor lawyers to avoid doing anything illegal. The union's worst complaints are gray-area anecdotes: a manager who's "individually asking people in her department how they stand on the union"; a Unity van driving by the UFCW headquarters at meeting time; administrators offering half-truths and dire speculations.

The RNs found templates for most of management's rhetoric in Confessions of a Union Buster by Martin Jay Levitt (Crown, 1993): "Assure them they can come to you with any complaint, and let them know you'll really listen.... Warn them that once the union takes over it's out of your hands. From that moment on there will be no more flexibility.... Tell them that they won't be able to speak for themselves, and you won't be allowed to answer."

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