Huntington Hospital Nurses Defy Union-Busting Campaign

04/12/2015 10:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2015

Dolly Wilson, a leader in the campaign to organize the registered nurses at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, California, was shocked to read a text message she received from another registered nurse. While Wilson, who works in the emergency room, was off duty, someone had put a letter in every nurse's mailbox in her unit, accusing Wilson of taking a skiing vacation in Utah paid for by the California Nurses Association (CNA), the union that is helping the Huntington nurses gain a voice at work.

"The letter couldn't be further from the truth" said the 30-year old Wilson, explaining that she and her boyfriend did take a ski vacation to Colorado (not Utah), but that they paid for it themselves "with our hard earned money!"

The letter is only one of many insults and assaults that the pro-union nurses have faced in their efforts to improve working conditions and patient care at the 123-year old 625-bed hospital named for Henry E. Huntington, a turn-of-the-century railroad baron.

Since the union drive began last May, the hospital has engaged is a nasty and expensive union-busting effort, paying a bevy of experienced and high-priced union-busting firms and consultants - including Littler Mendelson, IRI, and Genevieve Clavreul of Outside the Box Solutions -- to harass and intimidate nurses and undermine their organizing efforts.

The hospital's union-busting efforts have escalated since early March, when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that it will oversee an election on April 15 and 16. If a majority of the 1,220 nurses vote to unionize, the hospital will be required to negotiate a collective bargaining contract with the nurses, who will be represented by CNA.

According to the CNA, 60 percent of California's acute care facilities are unionized. Among the approximately 200,000 registered nurses at hospitals in the Golden State, 120,000 are represented by a union.

Last December, the NLRB determined that there was enough evidence to prosecute the hospital for violating nurses' federal labor rights and authorized the nurses' complaint charging the hospital with interrogating RNs about their union activity, creating the impression of surveillance of union activity, and denying pro-union nurses access to the hospital when they are off-duty and want to discuss union matters.

"I was pulled into my manager's office," Dolly Wilson remembered. "They said that after my shift I have to leave the premises immediately, that I can't distribute 'non-Huntington' information on the premises. I pushed back, telling them they couldn't change hospital policy in the middle of our union campaign. So I filed charges with the NLRB. "

According to nurses who have attended these anti-union propaganda sessions (which were mandatory for nurses in some units), the speakers have wildly exaggerated the cost of union dues, and claimed that CNA will force nurses to go on strike, which will endanger patient care. The speakers also told nurses that they could lose their health benefits, and warned that the hospital will lay off nurses and support staff if the union wins the election.

"The hospital has tried to pit nurses against support staff," Wilson noted. "They say we could lose our patient care associates (nursing assistants), and have threatened we could lose other support staff like laboratory techs."

At these meetings, pro-union nurses are not provided equal time to challenge the speakers' misleading statement. The hospital has also refused to provide pro-union nurses with a space to hold meetings of their own.

Since the union drive began, Huntington has beefed up its security details. When pro-union nurses and communities allies were meeting in the cafeteria, hospital security staff told them to remove their literature from the tables, but didn't say anything to a group of anti-union staff at the other side of the cafeteria who had their own materials.

In recent weeks, nurses have received an 8-page glossy anti-union pamphlet from Huntington management as well as a mailer with a USB stick with a slick anti-union video that said "the union doesn't bring you money, they take your money."

After the nurses began their union drive, the hospital has hired about 100 additional nurses, most of them recent graduates of nursing school. Wilson believes that this was a ploy by Huntington managers who calculated that the pro-union nurses were likely to win the election. The new hires haven't been involved in the union campaign.

"Most of the new nurses, especially those on probation, are scared to join the union drive," explained Wilson, who has worked at Huntington for over two years.

Pro-union nurses have received punitive assignments like working alone or only with anti-union co-workers, separated from other nurses. One of the hospital's security staff took photos of a pro-union nurse as she passed out leaflets on the public sidewalk outside the hospital.

Managers, nurses and other hospital employees intimidated, harassed, and jeered pro-union nurses and community supporters at a recent press conference held off the hospital grounds. Pro-union nurses were jeered and booed. Community leaders who attended to rally to support a fair and free union election were shouted down and rudely disrupted when they called on the hospital to end its intimidation activities.

Anti-union protesters interrupted Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater's effort to lead the rally-goers in a prayer and called him a liar and a paid informant

"I visit the hospital a lot because lots of my congregants use the hospital. I want to support those nurses who are trying to improve their work environment since I care about our community," explained Grater, who is spiritual leader at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. "I've seen lots of extra security at the hospital during the union campaign. But at the rally, there was no security to be seen while people were attacking us. We were surrounded and verbally abused. The nurses I was standing with were feeling threatened. It was very ugly and very tense."

Grater is one of several local clergy - including Rev. Ed Bacon and Rev. Francisco Garcia of All Saints Church, Rev. Andrew Schwiebert of the First Congregational Church, and Rabbi Jonathan Klein of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice -- who met with Huntington CEO Steve Ralph and other high-level hospital executives to urge them to allow the nurses to conduct their organizing efforts free of intimidation and harassment.

"The nurses who are involved in the organizing effort love the hospital. I've met nurses who have worked there for over 30 years," Grater said. "Their concerns aren't just about the salaries. They say they don't have enough staff or enough equipment. And it has gotten worse. The union leaders feel targeted and singled out."

The hospital reduced nurses' allowed sick days from six to four. Nurses have also complained that the hospital froze their pensions, ending the employer contributions in 2013. Meanwhile, senior executives have a defined benefit and compensation for top executives increased dramatically. For example, Ralph's annual salary grew 36% -- from $828,098 to $1,164,502 - between 2009 and 2012, the latest figure available.

But the pro-union nurses emphasize that their union drive is as much about patient care as about wages and benefits. Nurses say that patient care standards at Huntington have eroded, compromised by cuts in nursing as well as support staff.

Huntington's nurses have been forced to do more work with less help. They were made to do more admissions, transportation of patients, and housekeeping tasks because of hospital cutbacks in these areas. The hospital has skimped on supplies and even on clean linens.

"About a year ago, we transitioned to a new electronic medical record system, and It was poorly done. We [the nurses] didn't have enough support for the transition, and the hospital even disbanded the group of nurses chosen to give vital nursing input in the months leading up to its implementation," recalled Dolly Wilson. "The night of the Go-Live (implementation] was horrible. We had eight-hour plus wait times in our waiting room. It was chaos. We felt like we had been thrown to the wolves. We didn't have a voice in how it happened, and our patients suffered. It was because of that situation that one of the nurses called CNA."

Thanks to CNA's efforts, California is the only state in the country to enact a law mandating the ratio of nurses to patients in acute care facilities, which Huntington and other hospitals opposed before it was passed by the California legislature and signed by Gov. Gray Davis in 1999. The law took effect in 2004, giving hospitals five years to phase in the changes.

Nurses say that Huntington has violated the state nurse-to-patient ratio law. They want more stringent patient care provisions in a contract such as a patient care monitoring committee independent of hospital management.

Huntington is one of Pasadena's largest employers and one of its most famous institutions, along with the Rose Bowl, the Tournament of Roses, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, the California Institute of Technology, the Pasadena Playhouse, and the Huntington Library.

James Rothenberg, chair of Huntington's board of directors, is a well-known Pasadena resident who is chairman of the Capital Group Companies, Inc., a privately held investment firm that serves as the investment adviser to the American Funds, the nation's third largest mutual fund family. For the past ten years, he has served as the Treasurer of Harvard University and remains on the board of the Harvard Corporation that runs the university. He also serves on the boards of Cal Tech and the J. Paul Getty Trust. Rothenberg, a mega-donor to both Democratic and Republican candidates, is no stranger to local union battles. When he was chair of the board of trustees at Westridge School, an upscale private girls school in Pasadena, the institution waged an expensive, aggressive, and ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the teachers' efforts to organize a union.

The union organizing campaign has marshaled the support of many community and political leaders, including Congressman Judy Chu and the two run-off candidates - City Council members Jacque Robinson and Terry Tornek -- now vying to become Pasadena's next mayor, both of whom have appeared at pro-union events.

For Huntington nurse Dolly Wilson, who has worked at Huntington for more than two years, the organizing drive has been an eye-opening experience, win or lose.

"Before this, I wasn't an activist. I served my community coaching volleyball and went on some mission trips to Mexico through my church," explained Wilson, who worked as an EMT while in college and as an emergency room technician while in nursing school. The union drive has changed her.

"I've grown so much, and learned to speak up for what I think is right, which hasn't been easy. I was raised by a single mom, who is a brave woman and doesn't let anyone bully her; She inspires me everyday. Because of her, I have had the courage to stand up for what I believe in. Many nurses have thanked me for standing up for us to have a voice, and a fair and free workplace. Nurses are patient advocates. With a union like CNA, we can be stronger together and better patient advocates."

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).