According to a complaint filed Friday by the National Labor Relations Board, Yale-New Haven Hospital CEO Marna Borgstrom violated federal labor election law, despite her earlier claims that only lower-level managers engaged in questionable conduct.
The complaint also lists nine other managers who the agency claims participated in illegal anti-union conduct, ranging from conveying false information to employees about the ramifications of unionization to threatening their job security if they were to support a union. Hospital spokesman Vin Petrini said the allegations against Borgstrom — who until now had distanced herself from the actions of lower managers — are founded on contradictory and false information. The hospital has already admitted to and apologized for other incidents of misconduct listed on the complaint, which focuses on the period leading up to a cancelled unionization election scheduled for last December, he said.
“The one voice that hasn’t been heard in this debate yet is the voice of our employees,” Petrini said. “Meanwhile, we’ll continue to defend the hospital against any baseless charges brought by the union. We’ve offered a positive and practical way to solve this, and they flatly rejected it with the same old rhetoric as in the past.”
But NLRB Assistant Regional Director John Cotter said that after reviewing evidence, including sworn affidavits by hospital employees, the government agency is ready to support its findings before an administrative judge if no settlement is reached before the court hearing set for July 10.
“There was a large-scale attempt to undermine the union,” Cotter said, noting that the NLRB, which sometimes takes many months or years to rule on a labor law violation, reached a decision quickly following the union’s filing of complaints last December and again in March. “Everything involving [the hospital] is beyond the usual time frame, because there are so many related issues.”
Cotter placed the hospital’s violations somewhere in the middle of a spectrum of severity; he said they are not as egregious as cases in which administrators simply fire employees for supporting a union, and yet they are more severe than cases in which one maverick manager makes an anti-union comment in passing to an employee.
The only remedy the board may impose, by law, is ordering the hospital to post notices of its illegal conduct for 60 days, Cotter said. But the NLRB’s decision is a significant legal setback for the hospital and will likely lead to renewed political pressure on administrators to acquiesce to the union’s demands. The union — which had previously been lobbying for a card-check election — is now seeking a bargaining order, which would oblige the hospital to recognize SEIU-1199’s presence at the hospital.
Petrini said he found it “encouraging” that the NLRB did not choose to seek the bargaining order, and that failing a settlement — which both the NLRB and the hospital indicated they would like to achieve — the hospital looks forward to presenting evidence at the hearing that will exonerate Borgstrom. The hospital has already presented evidence to the independent arbitrator who is reviewing the case separately under authority given to her by the Elections Principles Agreement, reached last year between the union, the hospital and the city. The evidence shows that Borgstrom did not threaten anyone or interrogate them about union allegiance, Petrini said.
He said the hospital is holding out hope that a secret-ballot election will be ordered or that the union will agree to one on its own.
Last week, in a lengthy and blunt letter, the union rejected Borgstrom’s request for a secret-ballot election and demanded that the independent arbitrator issue a bargaining order instead. The arbitrator cancelled the original secret-ballot election scheduled to take place last December, ruling at the time that the hospital had violated the Election Principles Agreement and federal labor law.
Union spokesman Bill Meyerson said while the NLRB is “not an adequate vehicle to protect workers’ rights” due to its weak enforcement mechanisms, it is another reason why Borgstrom should publicly “make real amends” for her hospital’s wrongdoings.
“Petrini can say all he wants, but this is a finding [of fact] by the NLRB based on their investigation,” Meyerson said. “This is further evidence of systematic, pervasive violations of workers’ rights, of the law, of the agreement, and further reveals attempts on the parts of Borgstrom and others to cover it up.”
Margaret Kern, the independent arbitrator, ruled last month that the hospital had to turn over evidence that might implicate managers in working with a since-fired consulting firm that specializes in fighting union campaigns.
If a ruling by Kern — whose authority has been questioned by the hospital since the Elections Principles Agreement expired earlier this year — comes out against the hospital, she could potentially call for a remedy more significant than the 60-day notices demanded by the NLRB. Her decision is expected soon.