December 2000 Bulletin

Residents act to organize

NLRB allows election at private hospital

By Sandra Lee Breisch

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in November that some 170 residents and fellows in-training at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. have the right to form a union. The vote at the Chicago suburban hospital will be on December 6.

The decision marks the first time that private hospital residents have been organized by the Physicians for Responsible Negotiations (PRN), the American Medical Association’s negotiating arm. In November 1999, the NLRB board overturned its 24-year prohibition by extending federal labor law protections to residents at Boston Medical Center. Last August, PRN filed its petition for a resident union with the NLRB.

"The decision gives residents the momentum that the federal government has recognized that they are not just students, but also employees eligible for protection under the federal labor laws," says Robert T. Bernat, MD, executive director for PRN. "This decision also gives residents an opportunity to elect PRN as a voice for them in matters that affect their lives and the lives of their patients. The federal labor laws allows them to exercise their voice and not be concerned about retaliation."

According to Dr. Bernat residents are concerned about working conditions, health care benefits and the lack of a grievance procedure with due process.

The 608-bed hospital is owned by the non-profit Advocate Health Care (AHC) that has 11 hospitals, treating more than one million patients.

Lutheran General called for the inclusion of residents who occasionally rotate from several teaching hospitals where they are employed to Lutheran General. The hospitals are the University of Chicago Hospitals, Loyola University Medical Center, the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital, St. Francis Hospital and Illinois Masonic Hospital.

"We raised a number of legal questions during the NLRB hearings because it’s such a new territory of law," says Marcia Opal, Lutheran General’s director of public relations.

But the NLRB decision on Nov. 7 found that the Lutheran General "failed to meet its burden of showing that the petitioned-for bargaining unit is inappropriate under the Act without the inclusion of the rotating residents in affiliated or joint venture programs and without inclusion of the Advocate Medical Group doctors."

Elizabeth Kinney, NLRB’s Regional Director, Region 13, says it was a "complex" matter and decision. Kinney points out, "While rotating residents may share some common interests with the petitioned-for residents in the short periods of time that they are working at the employer’s (Lutheran General) site, many significant differences exist. Since the employer is not a joint employer of residents in the affiliated programs, affiliated program residents do not even have a common employer with the petitioned-for unit, which is a requirement for the commencement of any analysis as to unit inclusion.

"There is also not an overwhelming community of interest such that the unit must include these affiliated and joint venture program residents, regardless of whether joint-employer status may exist."

Says Opal, "We’re not exactly happy with the NLRB decision—but we’ll be working to assure our residents have as much information as possible."

PRN has also filed petitions with the NLRB on behalf of physicians employed by Concentra Managed Care Inc. in New Jersey last August. In January, PRN organized 38 employed physicians by the Wellness Plan, in Detroit.

Since PRN, which has a no-strike policy, was successful in these organizing efforts, Dr. Bernat says, "I think there will eventually be a movement across the country as other residents have been and will be looking for PRN support."

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