Nurses Decry Multitude of Sins at Union-Busting Catholic Hospitals

Less than 6 percent of Ascension Health’s 110,000 workers are union members, but apparently that’s 6 percent too many for the country’s largest Catholic health system. Management is on a concerted campaign to bust unions at its hospitals in Michigan, say the Teamsters, the Michigan Nurses Association, and their ally Interfaith Worker Justice, a national organization that works with religious leaders.

IWJ Executive Director Kim Bobo called Ascension’s sins “a fall from grace.” RN Tiffany McDonald, a Teamster, said “the whole culture is gone” at Genesys Medical Center in Grand Blanc, near Flint, since Ascension brought in a new CEO.

The 300 technicians at Genesys had been bargaining a new contract since December, until management walked away three weeks ago and refused to bargain further. Their “last and final” offer included changing licensed practical nurses’ title to “technician” and cutting their pay by up to $7 an hour, and getting rid of defined-benefit pensions. Payments to the pension fund would decline from an average of $6,240 per year to $1,620, and pensions would be cut by at least 75 percent, which “does not seem to fit with Ascension’s claims that it is dedicated to a compassionate and just society,” said the report issued today by IWJ.


IWJ had put together a delegation to interview workers from three Ascension hospitals in Michigan. They found egregious union-busting at Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo, where RNs had won fixed nurse-to-patients ratios in their last contract three years ago. But, said Karen Mitchell, vice president of the Michigan Nurses Association’s 700-member unit there, management soon took advantage of an escape clause that mentioned “extreme circumstances” to begin violating the ratios.

The Genesys and Borgess nurses have attended each other’s rallies and carefully watched two recent nurses’ strikes by sister unions in National Nurses United, at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia in April and at 14 Twin Cities hospitals in June.

The nurses’ contract at Borgess expired in March. For months management threatened to lock them out, parading suits from the scab provider Huffmaster Crisis Management around the units.

“They were pulling nurses aside,” Mitchell said, “especially the single parents, telling them, ‘we have people in hotels all lined up, you’ll be out on the street by Friday. You can’t sit on the fence—you’re with the hospital and your job, or you’re with the union.’

“For a three-month span every day a nurse would come up to me crying.”



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This reign of terror sought to advance Borgess Hospital’s campaign to rip 59 pages out of the nurses’ contract, leaving only wages and benefits. All other language, from scheduling to ratios to committees on patient care, would become “policy” instead. “They said, ‘we need this in order to have unilateral control in these changing times,’” Mitchell explained.

“The issue at Borges is not economic but management’s attempt to get rid of contract-based nursing standards,” said Jeff Breslin, MNA president. National Nurses United Co-president Jean Ross said of Ascension, “They know better than to go after our wages and benefits—it bothers them that our duties as nurses go beyond that. Our license dictates that we decide how many nurses are needed to care for patients. But the hospitals have usurped that.”


On July 12 the National Labor Relations Board charged Borgess with coercing union members and with refusing to bargain in good faith—in fact, that its bargaining strategy was illegal from the start. A hearing is set for October 4.

The IWJ delegation, made up mostly of Catholics, noted the “alarming similarity” of management tactics at the three Michigan hospitals. The same attorney was the lead bargaining consultant for two of them, they added.

Ascension is the third-largest health system in the country, the delegation reported, and if it operated for profit, it would be No. 220 on the Fortune 500. Its CEO, who made $2.75 million in 2008, was formerly the finance director of the Republican Party of Southeast Michigan.

Father Norman Thomas, whose Sacred Heart church hosted a press conference for the unions and IWJ, said he was proud that “people expect more of us because we’re Catholic than they do of other hospitals. It saddens me when we don’t measure up.”

Last year the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a document titled "Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Healthcare and Unions." The bishops said that recognizing workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively is “part of Catholic social thought.” The guidelines for dealing fairly with unions in Catholic hospitals were endorsed by the Catholic Health Association—whose board of trustees is chaired by Ascension CEO Anthony Tersigni.

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.


Clare (not verified) | 07/16/10

Catholics are very good at going to other places such as Latin America and preaching social justice. Priests, brothers and sisters have even been murdered for their social justice actions in other countries. Yet, when it comes to their own backyard, forget it. We have a Catholic hospital in the community where I live and they are totally anti-union. They also don't offer health insurance to all of their employees. I know a surg tech who works there and he doesn't have health insurance. Needless to say, I would NEVER set foot in that hospital.

Organized labor IS social justice. In fact, it's the starting point given most people on this planet must sell their labor on the installment plan. So any organization that preaches social justice must be pro-union. Period. If they're not pro-union, they should get out of the social justice business. And things like access to health care is a basic human right. Yea, I know the Mary Knolls like to go to Tanzania or Brazil or the Philippines and feed and clothe the poor, but I think that energy would be better spent ensuring workers at its hospitals in the U.S. are organized, treated humanely, and can access the very products and services they sell (i.e., have health insurance!).

Any priest, brother or sister who could ever work at a Catholic hospital in the U.S. is beyond my comprehension. How do they reconcile a CEO's salary of $2.7 million with the vows they have taken and the work they do? How can they work at a place that treats its employees so badly, which directly and adversely affects patient care?

I hate to say it but Catholics are a hypocritical lot and often very far from being "Christian."

Sparky 134 (not verified) | 07/15/10

Keep up the good fight! I am a proud 22 year Union member. My wife is a nurse so I know first hand the treatment Nurses receive and how hard the work is. As someone that has been a patient more than once in more than one hospital I know that I would rather have a nurse that is treated well by the administration than one that is treated poorly.