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June 10, 2010

Union organizing at Beth Israel Deaconess a sign of times to come

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Here’s a story of a routine, if high-profile, labor dispute that ended with little bloodshed and few aftereffects. All told, the whole thing doesn’t mean a whole lot. Or does it?   Read on and see if you still think so by the end of the tale.

The class-action suit, which covers about 9,000 current and former employees,  accused  Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC),  Beth Israel Deaconess-Needham, Mount Auburn Hospital and New England Baptist Hospitalof denying workers overtime pay for working past shift’s end or through lunch breaks.  The four, known collectively as CareGroup Inc., have agreed to pay out $8.5 million to settle the dispute.

So, what’s going on here? On the surface, all we have is some large hospitals paying out a comparatively small settlement to put a lawsuit to bed. Business as usual, basically. Hey, Beth Israel Deaconess alone chalked up $1.37 billion in consolidated revenue during its 2009 fiscal year – so I’m guessing that $8.5 million between the four is a fairly reasonable cost of doing business. Case closed, right?

Maybe not. If you check out the BusinessWeek story on the settlement, you’ll read that “officials with a union attempting to organize CareGroup workers called the settlement a “tremendous victory.”  That would be officials with the Service Employees International Union, an extremely aggressive labor group which seems to be gathering momentum daily. 

While labor unions exist to hassle employers into making changes – and I mean that respectfully, having been, well, an employee — the SEIU has been particularly hard-assed in this case.  The union has been pulling tactics out of thin air which I’ve never seen tried in my 20 years as a healthcare analyst. 

Beth Israel Deaconess is taking most of the SEIU local’s wrath, almost certainly because it’s a Harvard-affiliated teaching hospital with an international rep.

For years, SEIU leaders have hurled charge after charge at BIDMC, including allegations that the leadership wasn’t meeting federal standards in permitting “free and fair” secret ballot elections for employees. (Guess organizers were hoping to get the National Labor Relations Board involved, something most of us would like as much as, say, needless oral surgery.)

When that (seemingly) didn’t stick, the union kicked things up a notch. In 2008, the SEIU made an argument that since BIDMC board members also sit on public-company boards, the medical center should follow the same strict audit disclosure rules as public companies.

And they’ve only stepped things up since then.

Not only are SEIU organizers working to bring BIDMC’s staff on board, they’re maintaining an extensive surveillance, intelligence gathering and publicity campaign focused solely on that facility.   If you want to know just how hard the Boston SEIU branch is hitting, check out www.eyeonbi.org — it’s loaded with accusations.  Financial discrepancies.  Patient problems. Conflicts of interest.

To the SEIU, it seems,  BIDMC is doing pretty much everything wrong.  I’m not here to choose sides — no business or organization is spotless — just pointing out that these union organizers are playing with live ammo. It’s still not clear whether these tactics work or not, but man, they’re not playing here.

Now, imagine this large and well-funded union going ballistic on major hospitals across the U.S.  Get the picture?