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.