Controversy growing at USC Hospital

Students and faculty members are protesting the university’s decision to hire a controversial employment consulting firm that many think will influence the votes of USC University Hospital labor workers, who are scheduled to vote on whether to switch labor unions or forgo a union altogether in mid-May.

University Hospital labor workers say they are wary about USC’s decision to hire the Weissman Group, a consulting firm based in Ohio that workers say is notorious for its use of union-busting practices.

The group was hired by USC administrators and the hospital’s CEO, Michael Creem, shortly after labor workers announced in late September their decision to hold labor union elections.

“We actually got a memo that was leaked to us by some of the management staff that the Weissman Group had been hired as a consultant to help employees decide to vote ‘no union,’” said Michael Torres, a respiratory therapist at USC University Hospital. “We started noticing that managers were pulling in employees to meetings one-on-one, and they were asking them about their feelings, asking them about how they felt and what things could be improved.”

At the labor union election, which was originally scheduled for mid-April but postponed until mid-May, workers will have three options: stay with their current labor union, Service Employees International Union; opt for a new union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers; or choose to have no union. According to a statement from the USC University Hospital, the election will impact 686 staff members, including pharmacists, surgical technicians, physical therapists and other health care staff.

Voting “no union” would take away many of the rights workers have under unionization, such as free health care, free parking and wage negotiation.

“When the workers vote out the union, they become at-will employees,” Torres said. “They can be terminated without any prior notice at the whim of the boss, [USC University Hospital] can change their benefits at any time, they can lower their benefits at any time that management feels necessary because of the budget crisis or any other reason, or they can suspend their benefits [completely].”

Discontent with SEIU, the current union, began to grow after SEIU took over United Health Care Workers-West in January 2009 and shifted the union from local to international governance.

Workers say they’re getting less local representation, their grievances are not being handled in a timely manner and the accountability process has been turned upside down. Hospital workers decided to opt for a union election as soon as they were legally allowed to do so.

“As a result, all we’re trying to have now is a free and fair election so that the members at the facility can choose which union they want to represent them,” Torres said.

The presence of the Weissman Group, however, has left workers confused and angry.

“A lot of employees are frustrated, they’re kind of nervous because they’re not used to having managers or directors or supervisors pulling them into the office and talking to them about their feelings,” Torres said.

Torres said that since the Weissman Group was hired there has been pressure on employees to vote no union.

“Now employees are being purchased lunch. They’ll come to work and they’ll have cupcakes and cookies in their department,” Torres said. “All of a sudden, now the boss is the employees’ best friend.”

Higher-ups are not helping employees’ nerves by promising them incentives not guaranteed without union representation.

“They’re promising things they won’t put in writing,” Torres said. “I’ve been told by co-workers that they promised them that if they vote ‘no union,’ they’ll get tuition benefits that non-union employees at USC get. When employees ask to please put it in writing, they say, ‘Well, we can’t put that in writing.’”

Workers said they think the Weissman Group has been carefully training hospital supervisors on how to talk to the employees without crossing a line that would legally implicate them.

“They’re very careful to monitor conversations with the employees,” Torres said. “If at the end the employee opens up and starts speaking freely, they’ll say ‘Well, you know what, you should just vote no union.’”

The USC University Hospital released a statement saying, “We support our staff’s option to make their determination.” Officials did not comment further.

Some students at USC said they feel the university is not ensuring their workers’ rights and they are upset that university funds are being used to hire the Weissman consulting group.

“I’m so disappointed with the university for giving money to the Weissman Group,” said Elisabeth Gustafson, a junior majoring in history and member of Student Activists for A Beloved Community, a student organization that champions quality of life, health, equality and justice. “Our university is running like a corporation, it’s acting pompous and I’m so disappointed that we go to a school that would treat its workers this way.”

SABC member Elias Kohn, a sophomore majoring in sociology, agreed, adding that he favors a labor union for the USC University Hospital workers.

“The whole concept of the workers wanting to have a union that’s a little bit more grassroots, a little more local and not based in [Washington,] D.C. is something [we] agree with,” Kohn said.

Laura Pulido, a professor in American studies and union supporter, said this isn’t the first time USC has had issues with labor workers, though hiring the Weissman Group is unprecedented.

“To my knowledge, USC has never hired a union-busting firm,” Pulido wrote in an e-mail. “I believe they have in the past put pressure on workers through management in regards to union activity — but not quite like this. There is a long history of labor conflicts here at USC.”

USC’s SABC sent out a letter condemning the hiring of the Weissman Group and in support of workers’ rights to President Steven B. Sample, Executive Vice President and Provost C. L. Max Nikias, and Creem.

“If a lot of students knew that their money was going to a union-busting firm they’d be really disappointed because the students support the workers,” Gustafson said.

Though Torres said he was happy to receive widespread support from students on campus, he was upset at the administration’s handling of their upcoming election.

“It’s just very unfortunate that this union-busting campaign on behalf of USC has been driven because of their concern for profit,” Torres said.

The Weissman Group could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

13 replies
  1. Alex Welling
    Alex Welling says:

    I’m really surprised that people have the balls to say that they know what’s best for the workers at the hospital better than the workers themselves. I think that if the people who have been in this story for years (the hospital workers) are overwhelmingly in favor of NUHW, then it’s probably safe to say that this union is the best choice for them. You can speculate all you want as to what benefits the workers would gain if they voted out the union, but the fact is USC would be able to change or take away any benefits they’ve promised on a whim with no union to prevent this. People like Diane posting on here should keep in mind that they’re arguing with people who have talked to hospital workers and union representatives about this conflict.

    • Joe
      Joe says:

      How about those workers who are in favor of NUHW, join NUHW, and those who don’t want to, can opt out? Why do we never see the pro-union liberals proposing the obvious, fair solution?

      Oh yeah, now I remember, it’s because SOCIALISM DOESN’T WORK UNLESS YOU FORCE PEOPLE TO PARTICIPATE. If half of the workers form a “club for lazy bums” who demand fewer hours and more pay for less work, and the other half outshine them, the union members will (rightly) be first in line whenever layoffs are proposed.

      It’s ludicrous that a vote of 51% of workers can force the other 49% to submit their wages and their freedom to union bosses without their consent.

  2. Brad
    Brad says:

    Hey Adam, if you actually read the article you would notice a worker by the name of Michael Torres being quoted. And another thing, the WORKERS decerted SEIU and the WORKERS signed petitions to join NUHW. And the Weissman Group does not give two sides of the argument, only one and that is: Don’t join a union. Students’ tuition fees are being spent on a union-busting firm and I find that disgusting. And DIane, you are just plain crazy…

  3. Adam
    Adam says:

    It also mis-represented the issue and reported a few inaccurate facts. This all started because the employees were displeased with their Union, SEIU, and wanted them decertified. National Union of Healthcare Workers jumped on this opportunity. The workers did not invite them. The Weissman Group was hired not to “bust unions” or interfere with collective bargaining, but to help guide the university through the decertification process , and hopefully show USC a few practices that can avoid unionization. The decision is up to the workers…they get a secret ballot. Why not let them decide? I find it interesting that not a single worker is quoted in this article.

    • Isela
      Isela says:

      Adam you are correct in stating that the employees are displeased with their current union SEIU, anyone would be if you were paying dues and not getting representation. California alone has 150,000 healthcare workers in their union at approximately $720 in annualy dues that comes out to $108,000,000 a year. Of course the employees chose to stand up for themselves and elect a Union that will actively represent them. NUHW was invited by the employees as a viable option for them as is their right. USC unfortunately took advantage of the oppportunity to bring in a Union busting company to complicate things for the workers. All the employees want is the right to elect their choice. If you re-read the article you will see that Torres is quoted and he is an employee of USC University Hospital. I do find it intresting that the Weisman Group was unavailable for comment.

  4. Bev
    Bev says:

    No matter where you stand on the union issue, the Daily Trojan article (which was a news story, not an editorial or op-ed piece) did not have one sentence in it from a differing point of view. I would hope that our journalism students would know that good reporting calls for at least providing both sides of the story…this did not have that. Shame on the Daily Trojan for allowing an article like this to be printed.

    I hope that the teach-in being put together for April 13 will allow for a full discussion from all sides of the issue. That would truly be a teach-in.

  5. Diane
    Diane says:

    Lurid descriptions of the working conditions of farm workers are completely irrelevant to this discussion. The fact is (again) that USC employees enjoy generous benefits. There is, in fact, one enormous benefit that union workers do not have, and that is FREE tuition for their children or themselves, as well as 50% tuition for spouses and domestic partners, as well as tuition exchange scholarships at other schools for kids. So, for example, how does roughtly $38,000 a year in a free tax-free benefit sound to you? Also, if you work here 15 years your children will always have that benefit. If the hospital folks drop their union they get all these goodies. The difference in other benefits (health, retirement, etc.) is minimal at best, but probably leans in favor of USC.

    There’s your answer, Elias. And since unions as a whole, in this country, are contributing to our economic woes rather than solving them (SEIU has been AWFUL for California), I agree with Joe that I hope USC fights against them tooth and nail.

  6. Richard G
    Richard G says:

    I find it interesting that we are making the “All unions are wonderful” versus “All unions are corrupt and destructive” argument again. It is similar to the “laissez-faire capitalism is wonderful” and “laissez-faire capitalism is pure evil” argument. Some unions are more good than bad, some are more bad than good. In an ideal world workers would be appreciated and appropriately rewarded for their skills. Ours is not an ideal world. The questions we should be asking are how can we make workers lives better without unduly burdening the society at large. Perhaps the threat of a union would be more effective with USC than the actual presence of a union for its workers. A true partnership between workers and management would be most likely to succeed, which an academic environment has at least a chance of providing.

  7. Elias Kohn
    Elias Kohn says:

    Hi Diane, I was hoping if you have some time if you could provide me with some sources to support your idea that union members on the whole gain by dropping their membership.

    Any comprehensive study, personal contact, documented real wage increase/decrease and living standard conditions seem to disagree with what you said. The only fact I have seen is when free market policies are implemented the rich get extremely rich and the poor get poorer. The only exception to unions hurting its members is when a company closes down and relocates to where there are less protections (no union or weak enforcement, weak laws, or in other words your FREE MARKET prosperity claims only manifested in academic circles of rich elites and the actual “somewhat ignorant”). One of USC’s clothing manufacturers RUSSELL did this exact thing in Honduras, there was resistance throughout campuses in the US such as here at USC. When the factory was reopened after a continental boycott of RUSSELL clothing by universities, the working conditions with a union, WITH HIGHER WAGES, AND BASIC HUMAN HEALTH PROTECTIONS opened.

    Despite your claims, the same thing is evident in California. Up in Bakersfield farm workers worked conditions that I cannot even fathom how their bodies operated week to week. After the United Farm Workers Union they still toil with extreme conditions, and unless you work in 120 degree heat 6 days a week 10 hours a day (without overtime pay) they work harder than you and probably everyone at USC. This said, after the UFW these conditions are less severe than they were, such as there being mandatory water on site and some protections from growers who simply did not pay their workers at the end of the week/month. To get that Union 4 workers were killed, one a 10 year old who the police beat to death.

    But again, if you know of any facts that provide any substance to your claims, I would be very curious to read them as I have not seen any to date which is one reason I do support workers choosing to unionize and disagree with hiring a corporation with students money to break up that act of self determination.

  8. Max
    Max says:

    Workers have the right to organize and vote for a union. For USC to pay an expensive consulting firm to break collective bargaining at USC’s hospital is outrageous and insulting. I doubt USC would try tactics like these on workers on campus because it would be too visible to students, but I guess they think they can try to sneak it past the student body by doing it away from the main campus.

    To say that non-union workers have better benefits on the university park campus is partially true, but that’s primarily because USC punishes workers for trying to have a voice in the workplace. The unions on campus constantly struggle for more worker benefits.

    • Joe
      Joe says:

      So… one side is allowed to try and win the debate, but it’s an outrage for the other side to try and make their best case? Considering that its my tuition dollars the union thugs are demanding, I hope the university fights unionization with every iota of its determination.

  9. Richard
    Richard says:

    Thank you for this well written article. To say it is difficult to get a job at USC, and ignoring getting a job anywhere is extremely difficult is a disingenuous comment. As an alumnus of USC, it is suprising that suddenly our students are ignorant and unable to see labor issues for what they are. Finally, it is a dodge to dismiss this article by claiming that workers don’t know what they are missing by being non-union.

  10. Diane
    Diane says:

    The university provides excellent benefits to its non union workers. Why do you think it’s difficult to get a job here? It’s very competitive. This article (as well as the somewhat ignorant students who commented in it) entirely misses the point that the free market has provided great benefits to USC employees. Union workers, on the whole, stand to gain by dropping their union membership.

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