Labor and equal rights groups marched outside of Bethany Advocate Hospital on Chicago’s West Side May 4, protesting what they say was the firing of a nurse for attempting to unionize the hospital’s nurses.

Protesters from groups such as the Chicago Interfaith Worker Rights Centers and Service Employees International Union Locals 20 and 73 say that veteran nurse JoAnn Clausell was fired from Bethany in April for lobbying union help in funding the hospital.

“This is an injustice,” said Amorita Hudson, a protester from the nearby Austin neighborhood. “Every person on the face of this Earth has a right to protest.”

A Bethany spokeswoman denied that Clausell was fired for union activity. “We do not terminate employees for speaking on behalf of patients,” said June Crayton, vice president of Patient Care Services at Bethany.

Clausell’s story has become the focal point in a back-and-forth argument over unionizing nurses at cash-strapped Bethany, 3435 W. Van Buren St.

Clausell, who did not attend the demonstration, said later there have been times when hospital equipment has not worked, including blood pressure machines, and at times there has been no hot water in patients’ rooms. There have been many days when the hospital has gone understaffed, with two nurses overseeing 26 patients, she added.

“I felt that with a union, these things could be improved,” Clausell said.

Clausell said that starting in January of this year?”soon after receiving a good evaluation from Bethany administrators?”she began getting the first bad write-ups in her 33-year career for such things as poor CPR technique. The series of write-ups continued until April 25, when she was fired for “misconduct” and “embarrassment to the hospital,” she said.

Bethany is one of 10 Chicago area hospitals administered by Advocate Health Care, a nonprofit health care system affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ.

Representatives for Advocate and Bethany said they could not comment specifically on Clausell’s case.

“This [demonstration] isn’t about health care; this isn’t about investment,” said Advocate spokesman Tony Mitchell. “It is all a part of the SEIU’s interest in trying to organize Advocate’s employees and to do that in a way that doesn’t allow a free and fair vote.”

Oak Brook-based Advocate is one of the Chicago area’s largest employers, with more than 24,500 staff members. Other Advocate employees, such as nurse’s assistants and janitorial staff, have union representation, but the company’s 7,000 nurses do not.

Mitchell said Advocate nurses don’t want union representation, and that union groups are out of line in their protesting. Crayton agreed. “It is our belief, and it is Advocate’s, that nurses have the right to decide,” she said. “Nurses at Bethany Hospital have not decided to join a union.”

“The argument that we want to organize is a moot point,” said SEIU Local 20 communications director James Muhammad. “That’s not the issue. It was a legitimate protest to protect the rights of a worker who was unjustly fired.”

Organizers accuse Advocate of under-investing in Bethany, leaving the hospital ill-equipped to properly treat patients. They say suburban, wealthier Advocate hospitals receive more support.

Mitchell acknowledged that there is a funding problem at Bethany. Bethany’s “doors remain open,” he said, even though Advocate has lost $38.5 million in operating the hospital since 1997. He said despite that loss, Advocate continues to make improvements in technology and services at Bethany. “We are absolutely committed” to the community, he said.

Clausell has filed a grievance with the Bethany’s human resources department and hopes to return to the hospital, whose street is lined with light poles decorated with hospital flags reading, “We’re Your Advocate.”

“Those signs?”they’re not too accurate,” she said.