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.

Sure enough, Nesler says, "Head nurses have approached people, saying, 'When the union comes in, we won't be able to talk to you like this.' People hear that and go, 'Oh my God, you mean I wouldn't be able to go talk to Jan?'" One hospital memo warned that a union "can do whatever it wants, despite the wishes of the employees." Last year, administrators put out a "fact sheet" pointing out that UFCW Local 655 has expenses of $14.2 million, etc., etc., and warning employees, 'You may lose the fellowship and sense of community among employees ... you may lose control of your personal relationship with management." Then they gave blanks for people to fill in: "When I need a day off, I ___. When I want to coordinate my vacation with my spouse's and my kids' school schedule, I ___. When I have a concern and want to talk with my supervisor, I ___."

Asked whether such portents are accurate -- whether snakes will grow from the heads of union organizers and relationships will harden into stone -- Crain says, "All of that becomes part of a negotiated contract, so it's hard to speculate." Asked if any anti-union nurses attend the union meetings (union supporters rattle off lists of suspected spies), she repeats the question musingly, then says, "The invitations are sent to everybody. I don't know who goes to the meetings. But I would expect that there might be some folks. We've encouraged people to get both sides."

They're getting only fragments of the union side, supporters argue; they hear a few bits out of context, and management gets a skewed report. Still, their presence is technically legal. "The problem is, there are nurses in the gray area -- not managers, but former managers, or loyal to people in management," explains Skurat. "They stick out like a sore thumb."

What the RNs really resent, though, are the parties.
"The day before the big UFCW meeting, the administration ordered pizzas for the entire hospital," says Prade. "The summer of the MONA campaign, we all got to go to Six Flags." Skurat recalls an ice-cream social last May -- one month after the union kickoff -- with the theme "We're a Hit!" bolstered by a jukebox in the cafeteria and beaming administrators. It was a great example of what Confessions of a Union Buster called "anti-union good times sponsored by a chastened and caring management." Then there was the 1998 Christmas party. A surgeon -- wearing a suit that day instead of scrubs -- made a casual comment about the union, teasing that the employees might owe this especially nice spread to their looming presence. He was approached immediately by security guards. Nurses heard that the guards later apologized, explaining that they thought he was a union agitator. But administrators insisted that he "was not asked for identification because he was making comments about the union but because it was not clear that he was a SJMMC/Unity Health employee. Contrary to SJMMC policy, he was not wearing his name badge."

Christmas may have been dampened, but in February, St. John's made up for it. To celebrate the Top 100 recognition, they hosted a Top FUN Hundred Winter Barbecue for all employees, complete with a pie-eating contest ("Be ready to get messy!" the flyer urged) and a limbo contest ("How low can you go?")

That's precisely what the nurses wanted to know.
"They are milking that award for all it's worth," groans Prade. "Just the other day they were passing around $100,000 Bars on little pushcarts with tablecloths. We had a baby dying that day, and I thought, I could sure use a little help here instead of a candy bar."

The highest authorities of the Roman Catholic Church have consistently spoken for unions as a right fundamental to human dignity, a way for workers, in the words of Pope John Paul II, "to defend and promote their interests and to contribute in a responsible manner to the common task." Yet last June, Sister Mary Juliane Carey, vice president for mission integration at St. John's Mercy Medical Center, wrote the RNs, "In light of recent organizing activities ... I would like to share with you our position on unions in health care, which is based on Catholic Church teachings." In essence, she argued that they already recognized workers' dignity but believed that, as a hospital, they would "best serve the common good by maintaining our mutual relationships, free from another party's intervention."

Such rhetoric pulls at faithful employees' heartstrings, and the union supporters' frank criticisms anger and embarrass them. When the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted nurses saying the hospital's housekeeping was slipping, you would have thought someone had accused the entire staff of illegitimate pregnancy. "We all need to learn to pick up our own messes," wrote a chastened staffer, and Crain fired off a letter saying, "I am especially offended by attacks on our quality of care and cleanliness." (One RN responded tartly, "We are sorry Chris Crain is offended by statements regarding lack of cleanliness. Maybe she and other administrators should come out of the office to patient-care areas.")

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