Tension mounts at Sinai over attempt to unionize

Registered nurses at Sinai Health System in North Lawndale want the institution to automatically grant them union membership

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

Tensions are rising between workers and administrators at a West Side medical institution over attempts by the workers to unionize. 

According to the National Labor Relations Board, employees can form a union one of two ways: by a majority of employees who would be included in the union voting to join or by the employer choosing to recognize the union without a vote taking place. 

The registered nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital and Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital — both part of the Sinai Health System's main campus in North Lawndale — want the hospital system to automatically recognize their union while hospital administrators want the workers to unionize by voting on the matter through a secret balloting process. 

Dan Regan, a spokesperson for Sinai Health System, argued in an email sent on June 27 that a secret ballot is the best way to ensure that the hospital respects the wishes of the majority of nurses it employs. 

"We are not willing to recognize the union as representing the nurses and technical employees without the NLRB conducting a secret ballot election, providing our employees the opportunity to voice their decision," Regan explained in the email statement. "Sinai recognizes the employees' rights to organize or refrain from organizing a union."

The nurses want to be represented by SEIU Healthcare Illinois, a division of the Service Employees International Union. The labor union already represents healthcare employees at other institutions, such as Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Stroger Hospital. 

According to the union's website, nurses at Sinai Health want higher wages, which they argue are lower than nurse wages at similar hospitals; they also have concerns about what they said are dangerously low staffing levels and the kind of insurance coverage they're offered. 

"We are very proud to care for our community — especially a community that does not get the care they deserve," Megan Lonergan, a staff nurse at Mount Sinai, said on May 22, when the nurses announced their intention to start negotiating with the hospital as a labor union. 

"We want the administrators to care for us, as workers," she said in a press release put out by SEIU Healthcare, "the way we care for our patients, which is with our full hearts." 

According to a recent SEIU statement, two secret ballots in 2006 and 2007 failed. National Labor Relations Board records show that for the 2007 ballot, among the 508 nurses, techs and therapists eligible to vote, 152 voted for unionization while 293 voted against it. 

In a statement released by the SEIU, on June 13, the majority of registered nurses at Mount Sinai "converged in and around the office of Sinai Health System CEO Karen Teitelbaum to request that management recognize their decision for union representation through SEIU Healthcare Illinois." 

The nurses gave Teitelbaum until 5 p.m. that day to respond to their request. After the deadline passed without a response, the nurses announced that they would apply additional pressure at a press conference on June 19, which is Juneteenth, an annual holiday celebrated to commemorate the day that slaves in Texas and other Confederate states finally got formal word that they were free. 

"We wanted to give Sinai the opportunity to do the right thing," Tyra Jackson, an RN with Sinai's Schwab Rehab Center, said in the SEIU statement. "When we delivered our demand, we made it clear why we were doing it. We've been waiting and waiting for Sinai to respond to our concerns about wages, about benefits, and especially about staffing."

"There's a reason that a majority of us have chosen to organize a union," stated Adam Raslawski, an RN who works in Mount Sinai's intensive care unit. "Management tries to divide us and minimize our concerns — but by joining together with other nurses, with medical techs and with all other members — we have the power we need to have a real voice on the job as a patient care team.

"The CEO now has refused to recognize our voice and has also publicly announced committing precious bedside resources into hiring consultants to fight our union," Raslawski said. "The system is rigged giving employers that advantage — that's why we are seeking a neutral party to validate our majority."

In response to Raslawski's claim, Regan said that "to ensure that we adhere to all legal requirements in this environment, we have enlisted professional legal assistance, as well as a human resources consultant to provide additional training for our leaders." 

SEIU Healthcare did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment.

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com  

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