The Michigan Nurses Association is suing Sparrow Hospital for unfair work practices

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Sparrow Hospital workers are calling for fairer pay and better benefits from one

  • Anna Gustafson
  • Sparrow Hospital workers call for fairer pay and better benefits from an “information strike.”

The Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) last week filed a lawsuit against Sparrow Hospital with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week alleging that the Lansing-based health center has repeatedly violated federal labor laws and used union shutdown tactics such as the hospital and its nursing staff union negotiates a new contract.

According to the MNA, Sparrow executives have “taken an aggressive anti-union approach” as they review contract negotiations with the Professional Employee Council of Sparrow Hospital (PECSH). PECSH members – which include nurses, pharmacists, social workers and therapists, among others – have been working without a contract since 30 October. Nursing staff recently voted to approve a strike should union leadership find it necessary. PECSH is a local subgroup of MNA.

“We are completely tired of the anti-union stance taken by Sparrow leaders,” said Jessica Lannon, a Sparrow nurse and PECSH Complaints Chairwoman, in a press release. “They keep trying to silence the voices of the nursing staff. Sparrow’s administration has crossed the line too many times and must be held accountable.”

According to the MNA’s indictment filed Wednesday, Sparrow Hospital has “illegally questioned staff about union activities and illegally tried 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 indictment also alleges that hospital managers:

  • Illegally abandoned procedure for safe staffing problems in the nursing staff’s trade union contract before its expiration
  • Illegally announced that they plan to limit provider network in 2022 for employee health insurance plans
  • Illegally created a position for nurses at Sparrow outside the union
  • Illegally refused to share financial information with the union
  • Legally Enforced Workers’ Legally Protected Right to Strike, including by submitting bargaining proposals containing a written threat to automatically withdraw proposals on pay, health care and other financial terms upon notice of a strike

Sparrow spokesman John Foren wrote in an email that the hospital “is reviewing the complaint and will respond as needed”, noting 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 may take longer. Once it has completed this process, a settlement can be reached or the NLRB can issue a complaint against Sparrow. A complaint results in a hearing for an administrative court judge in the NLRB, who can order a variety of remedies. The MNA said its ultimate goal is to get Sparrow to stop the union withdrawal tactics the hospital is accused of.

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

On November 22, the PECSH announced that health workers in the union overwhelmingly supported the approval of a potential strike.

96 percent of PESCH members who took part in the vote agreed to allow a strike. About 88% of the 2,200 PECSH members voted.

The vote does not mean that there will definitely be a strike, but it does give union leaders the opportunity 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 try to both retain and attract employees while Michigan again struggles with the highest COVID-19 case numbers in the country.

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

“[Sparrow executives] should spend less time illegally trying to silence us and more time trying to work with us, ”said Jen Ackley, an emergency room nurse and member of the Sparrow Nursing Staff Elected Negotiation Team, in a press release. “Our first 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 few weeks.

The proposal will “significantly increase compensation” for nursing staff without changes to the current health care plan or nursing staff premium share, “Sparrow said in a prepared statement last week.

Under the proposed contract, a nurse now earning $ 37 an hour will see their base salary increase by $ 7.04 an hour, a 19% increase, at the end of the three-year contract. A clinical laboratory researcher currently earning $ 34.04 per hour would see their base salary increase by $ 5.33 per hour, an increase of 15.6%, at the end of the three-year contract.

The proposal “shows the value we attach to our caregivers who have excelled nationally with grace and compassion during the worst health crisis of our lives,” Sparrow said.

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

Contract negotiations continue this week.

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

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