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Justin Howe was born at Mercy Health Hackley hospital in Muskegon, Mich., 39 years ago. His mom was a nurse there, and he worked there for 10 years, eventually becoming president of the nurses’ union local. Then, on April 3, Mercy administrators called him into a room before the start of his shift and fired him. The reason, he was told, was a HIPAA violation; they claimed that Howe had accessed medical records without authorization. (Howe and his union representatives deny the claim and contend that Mercy has provided no evidence.)
The real reason Howe was fired, he and his union reps say, is obvious: Howe had recently gone to the media about the hospital’s lack of protection for its workers during the Covid crisis. Before Howe spoke to a local paper and to TV news, the hospital was not providing workers with N95 masks, and barred them from using ones donated by the public.
“It’s sad that we can count on the community to protect us, but we can’t count on our own hospital,” Howe told a local CBS affiliate. “We want to thank other local unions and the community for having our backs.”
Ten days later, he was fired.
“It’s retaliation, plain and simple,” Howe said. “There was no HIPAA violation before I went to the media. The larger picture is that they want to bust the unions.”
Mercy declined to comment for this story, but released a statement after the firing saying it stood behind its decision and was “incredibly disappointed that the Michigan Nurses Association, a labor union that purports to advocate for nursing best practices, has chosen to advance this false story in order to promote itself in the media.”
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Howe and other Mercy employees say, the health system has sought to cut costs, let go of workers, and use misinformation to turn workers against their unions. Many hospitals, including Mercy, have lost money over the last few weeks, because they’ve been forced to pause elective surgeries—though Mercy says some of these procedures will now resume.
“They’re taking advantage of the crisis,” Hasan Zahdeh, president of the Michigan Union of Healthcare Workers, said. “Covid gave them an excuse to skirt their legal obligation to bargain with the union. Every day they come up with a new policy. It’s really hard to keep up with.”
Mercy is one of the largest health systems in the Midwest, and it is wholly owned by one of the largest health systems in the country: Trinity Health. Though both entities are Catholic charities, they operate similarly to corporations. Trinity employs more than 125,000 people, brought in over $19 billion in revenue last year, and pays its top executives millions. In 2018, Mercy’s director was paid nearly $1.2 million.
According to the Michigan Nurses Association, Howe’s firing is part of a pattern of Mercy and Trinity ramping up union-busting actions during the pandemic. One of the most worrisome signs is that Trinity has recently hired two notorious anti-labor consultants. Union reps noticed in early April that administrators had given Matt Patterson and Doug Seaton Trinity e-mail addresses, and began cc’ing them on communications with union representatives.
Seaton refers to himself as a “lawyer for employers,” and in 2017, the Trump administration considered appointing him to the National Labor Review Board, making him more than likely the first union avoidance consultant ever in the running for a spot on the board.
“He was passed up because he was too far right, even for Trump,” Zahden said. Now, Seaton’s working for Trinity. “That is scary.”
Seaton has worked on several union-busting campaigns against nurses’ unions in the last few years, including one against 27,000 home health-aid workers in Minnesota, which is often described as the largest union decertification campaign in US history. So far, that effort has failed.
Patterson, for his part, has been employed by a number of conservative think tanks, from Americans for Tax Reform to the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He became famous in the anti-union world for his successful fight to prevent Volkswagen workers in Tennessee from organizing with the United Auto Workers. The German car company said it was neutral on unionization, a rarity in the manufacturing world, but far-right groups funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat the labor movement’s efforts. In a 2013 presentation, Patterson bragged about pitting workers against the union, using the media to create an anti-union narrative in Tennessee, and building an anti-union intelligence network “from Chattanooga to Germany to Detroit.” Patterson compared the UAW to the “invading Union force from the North,” and said standing up to them was akin to carrying on the fight of Tennessee’s Confederate soldiers.
“The employees of Mercy are diverse, and to hire someone who has that view of minorities, it’s disappointing to say the least,” Zahdeh said.
Patterson, according to the Michigan Nurses Association, became directly involved in labor relations at Mercy right around the time Howe was terminated, and Seaton began being cc’d on e-mails shortly thereafter. Trinity told the union that Seaton’s role was “lead labor consultant.” Representatives from Trinity did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
The hiring of Patterson and Seaton is part of a trend of anti-union actions at hospitals and elsewhere, according to Gordon Lafer, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute. “They’re facing increased interest of hospital workers to organize new unions, and are using these firms to engage in aggressive intimidation tactics to stop that from happening,” Lafer said.
According to a forthcoming report from the Economic Policy Institute, the use of these anti-labor consultants is at an all-time high, and employers are spending $400 million a year on these union-busting firms. Clients often give these companies large bonuses for successfully fending off union campaigns, according to the EPI report, and the individual consultants can make hundreds of dollars an hour.
These campaigns often target nurses, because their unions are some of the largest in the country. There are now “labor relations consultants” that are solely dedicated to preventing nurses from organizing.
“The right wing, the corporate elite understand how strategic nurses are to the labor movement,” said Jane McAlevey, a union organizer, The Nation’s strikes correspondent, and author of A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy. “Hospital administrators try to come off as doing something good, but really they’re just taking public money and hiring union-busting thugs.”
At Mercy, the anti-union fight is growing more intense. Right before the hospital fired Howe, Mercy President Gary Allore released an 11-minute Facebook video in which he blamed the unions for causing confusion during the pandemic. “They’re using unprecedented and defamatory information and tactics all designed to create credible fear in the community,” Allore said in response to allegations about the lack of protective equipment. “They are forcing us to take time out to respond [to their demands] and are putting lives on the line.”
Then, late on a Friday night in early April, Mercy sent an e-mail to union members announcing possible furloughs, and gave the union until noon the next day, a Saturday, to respond. Administrators also notified employees that they would allow people to borrow paid time off from the future in order to take paid time off during the pandemic. They then rescinded that offer, and sent out a staff-wide message blaming the union for the rescindment.
“It’s demoralizing, and it makes the union look weak or incompetent,” Zahdeh said. “I’ve been working there a long time. Any employer doesn’t want their employees to be unionized. But this aggressiveness is new.”
Howe and the union haven’t given up. He and the Michigan Nurses Association on Monday filed a lawsuit against Mercy Health, claiming it had violated the state’s whistle-blower laws by punishing him for speaking out.
Howe said he hopes the suit forces Mercy to reinstate his employment. “I have knowledge and skills that need to be utilized right now,” Howe said. “And here I am sitting on the sidelines. It’s difficult.”