Michigan Nurses Association files unfair labor practice charge against Sparrow Hospital

click to enlarge Sparrow Hospital workers call for fairer pay and better benefits at an “informational strike.” - Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson
Sparrow Hospital workers call for fairer pay and better benefits at an “informational strike.”

The Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) filed an unfair labor practice charge against Sparrow Hospital with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week, alleging that the Lansing-based health care facility has repeatedly violated federal labor law and employed union busting tactics as the hospital and its caregivers’ union negotiate a new contract.

According to the MNA, Sparrow executives “have taken an aggressively anti-union approach” as they undergo contract negotiations with the Professional Employee Council of Sparrow Hospital (PECSH) union. PECSH members — who include nurses, pharmacists, social workers, and therapists, among others — have been working without a contract since Oct. 30. The caregivers recently voted to authorize a strike should union leadership determine it’s necessary. PECSH is a local subset of the MNA.

“We are completely fed up with the anti-union attitude Sparrow executives have taken,” Jessica Lannon, a Sparrow nurse and PECSH’s grievance chair, said in a press release. “They keep trying to silence the voices of caregivers. Sparrow’s administration has crossed the line too many times and must be held accountable.”

According to the MNA’s charge filed Wednesday, Sparrow Hospital “unlawfully interrogated staff about union activities and unlawfully attempted to prevent staff from wearing red to show support for their union” and threatened to cut health care and other benefits if workers went on strike. The charge also alleges that hospital executives: 

  • Unlawfully abandoned the safe staffing concerns process in the caregivers’ union contract prior to its expiration
  • Unlawfully announced that they plan to restrict provider networks in 2022 for employee health insurance plans
  • Unlawfully created a position for nurses at Sparrow outside of the union
  • Unlawfully refused to share financial information with the union
  • Unlawfully coerced employees’ legally protected right to strike including by making bargaining proposals containing a written threat to withdraw proposals on wages, health care and other economic terms automatically upon notice of a strike

Sparrow spokesperson John Foren wrote in an email that the hospital is “reviewing the complaint and will respond as appropriate” and noted that Sparrow disputes “all allegations in the complaint.”

The NLRB said on its website that it typically takes between seven and 14 weeks to investigate a charge, though it can take longer. Once it completes that process, a settlement may be reached or the NLRB can issue a complaint against Sparrow. A complaint results in a hearing before an NLRB administrative law judge, who can order a variety of remedies. The MNA said its ultimate goal is to get Sparrow to cease the union busting tactics of which the hospital is accused.

The MNA noted in its press release that, shortly before contract negotiations began, Sparrow hired a law firm, Barnes and Thornburg, that specializes in “union avoidance,” according to its website. 

On Nov. 22, PECSH announced health care professionals in the union overwhelmingly backed authorizing a potential strike.

Ninety-six percent of PESCH members who participated in the vote approved authorizing a strike. About 88% of the 2,200 PECSH members voted.

The vote does not mean a strike will definitely happen, but it allows union leaders to call for one if contract negotiations break down. The MNA specified that 10 days’ notice would be given before a strike date is set. 

Union leaders said Sparrow staff need fairer pay and benefits in their new contract, as well as safer working conditions, as they attempt to both retain and attract employees while Michigan once again battles the highest COVID-19 case numbers in the country.

Following the strike authorization vote, Sparrow’s administration offered a new contract proposal with improved wages but did not guarantee caregivers access to personal protective equipment and reduced the number of sick days caregivers can take, according to union leaders.

“[Sparrow executives] should be spending less time illegally trying to silence us and more time trying to work with us,” Jen Ackley, an emergency department nurse and a member of Sparrow caregivers’ elected bargaining team, said in a press release. “Our number one goal as union caregivers is to keep our patients safe.”

Sparrow’s new proposed contract was given to the union through a federal mediator who has been working with the hospital and PECSH for the past couple of weeks.

The proposal would “significantly increase compensation” for caregivers with “no changes to the current health care benefit plan designs or caregiver premium co-share,” Sparrow said in a prepared statement last week.

Under the proposed contract, a nurse now making $37 an hour would see their base wage increase by $7.04 per hour, a 19% increase, by the end of the three-year contract. A clinical lab scientist currently earning $34.04 per hour would see their base wage increase by $5.33 per hour, a 15.6% increase, by the end of the three-year contract.

The proposal “shows the value we place in our caregivers, who have distinguished themselves nationally with grace and compassion during the worst health crisis of our lifetime,” Sparrow said.

The hospital said it “does not want a strike, which would be bad for everyone.”

Contract negotiations are continuing this week.

Originally published November 29, 2021 on Michigan Advance. It is shared here with permission.

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