Labor Pains 

Union efforts at Hamilton hospital are met with warnings

As a penniless Irish immigrant who worked himself up through the mining ranks to become one of the wealthiest men of his day, Marcus Daly understood unions and workers well. But it appears that is not the case for the Hamilton hospital that was built in his memory and carries his name.

Two unions are working with employees at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital after being contacted by individual employees about the possibility of organizing a union for the workers. But employees aren’t talking openly about the possibility; all have received letters from hospital administrator John Bartos asking them not to sign union authorization cards and to let the administration know if they are contacted about union activities.

The letter is typical of administrative response to union discussion, according to Timm Twardoski, union representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “There’s so much fear and intimidation and misinformation in this type of situation,” Twardoski says. “We’re here because someone felt things were bad enough they needed to talk union. Unions often are seen as a last resort solution to problems.”

AFSCME and the Montana Nurses Association both have received inquiries about unionization at Marcus Daly. Twardoski says the initial inquiries began with complaints and concern about lack of staffing and supplies at the hospital. A hospital employee who asked not to be identified later confirmed the hospital has been using temporary staff from an agency to fill a number of positions and that nursing staff particularly is in short supply.

“We held a meeting with several people—outside of Hamilton—because they were concerned that meeting with us could put their jobs in jeopardy,” Twardoski says. “They went back and started to talk to other people. One person was called into the administrator’s office and asked about these activities. That was frightening.”

According to Twardoski, employees have the right to discuss union activities and potential unionization with others in the workplace while on breaks or during lunch hours. It is illegal for an employer to harass or threaten them for doing so.

“But, if employees are scared they might lose their job or be punished, they don’t talk and they don’t go to meetings,” Twardoski says.

Twardoski has sent three letters to Bartos, asking for IRS 990-related information and requesting a public meeting open to the entire hospital staff and administration where the union can present its information and answer questions.

“I haven’t received any reply,” Twardoski says. “We’re being ignored. The letter to the employees is the only reply.”

That letter, signed by Bartos, is full of inaccurate and misleading information, according to Twardoski. It asks employees to not sign union authorization cards “without thoroughly knowing the facts.” According to the letter, if 51 percent of the employees sign the cards, the union “may send us a letter asking us to bargain.” Twardoski adamantly denies that, saying his union only uses the cards to establish the right to hold an election to determine if the workers want to unionize.

The letter states that unions cost employees money in initiation fees, monthly dues, strike assessments and fines, but Twardoski counters that his union does not charge initiation fees or assessments.

“There are very strict guidelines set by the Unfair Labor Practices Act,” Twardoski says. “An employer can’t openly interfere with union activities, but they definitely have an impact with letters and questions about who is involved.”

The letter states, “In the event you are approached by a co-employee or union organizer to sign a card, please give us an opportunity to answer your questions and explain the dangers of signing union authorization cards.”

“We saw almost exactly the same letters in Superior when we successfully organized that hospital two years ago, and more recently in Whitefish when we organized that hospital last fall,” Twardoski says. “In most cases, the hospital spends thousands of dollars to hire a consultant to fight the union organization and these letters are one of their tools. They take the focus off the problems in the hospital and try to scare people with union stories.”

In Whitefish, Twardoski set up meetings in a hotel across from North Valley Hospital. The meetings were open to everyone and were attended by staff and administrators and their consultants. Eventually the employees voted to unionize.

“The only way it will work is when enough people are willing to come out of the closet and say they want a union,” Twardoski says. “Things have to be bad enough they feel they have to have a change. That’s what keeps people coming together.”

Twardoski says he believes there is strong local interest for a union at Marcus Daly but admits there is also a great deal of fear about job loss if a union vote is unsuccessful. That observation seems to be accurate. No hospital employees contacted by the Independent are willing to speak on the record or have their names used in an article.

“We don’t have access to hospital employment records or addresses,” Twardoski says. “It’s all word-of-mouth and that’s been real low-key. I’d love to have a great big meeting with the administration present and get everyone together to ask questions and talk but these folks are too badly scared and intimidated. They just wouldn’t come.”

Bartos did not return calls from the Independent.

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