Huntington Hospital is Ill

By John Grula

A well-respected medical institution is sliding downhill.  Could that have something to do with its failure to allow nurses to form a union?

Long thought to be in the same league as the Huntington Library, California Institute of Technology and some of Pasadena’s other great institutions, Huntington Hospital has not been looking so good lately.   

An article in the September 2013 issue of Consumer Reports (“Your Safer-Surgery Survival Guide”) in its ranking of nearly 200 California hospitals, places Huntington as fifth from the bottom.  ranks Huntington fifth from the bottom.  Note:  Consumer Reports is the largest, most-trusted independent product testing organization in the world, accepting no advertising and, as a not-for-profit organization, without shareholders. 

Despite being one of California’s worst hospitals, Huntington’s senior management is richly compensated. For example, according to IRS 990 forms for 2012 and 2013, President and CEO Steve Ralph receives on an annual basis well over $1 million in total compensation.   

What does Ralph do to earn his lucrative pay?  Well, lately he has engaged in significant efforts to aggressively suppress attempts by the hospital’s registered nurses (RNs) to form a union under the auspices of the California Nurses Association (CNA).  That opposition to a union of employees is in complete violation of federal law (see the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.) A statement recently issued by Huntington’s PR department is clearly anti-union and reads, in part, “We believe that we are stronger when we work together directly, rather than through a third-party like a labor union.”

Why do RNs at Huntington feel compelled to form a union? Their concerns are many, but, according to several with whom I have spoken, their primary concern is that management is not complying with all of Title 22 of the California Code of Regulations, which includes such things as nurse-to-patient ratios and other important laws that are critical to ensuring patient care standards. The RNs are keen to restore and maintain the highest quality of patient care.

According to several RNs, many units are understaffed and they have to do more work with less help, often without sufficient supplies and equipment. Stagnant compensation and frozen pensions are other concerns, as well as more restrictive and punitive work policies, which have eroded morale. Is it possible that these problems have something to do with why Huntington recently received such a lousy grade from Consumer Reports?

It’s not as if RNs forming unions is something rare or unusual. According to the CNA, 60 percent of California hospitals are unionized, and of the approximately 200,000 RNs who work in California hospitals, 120,000 are represented by a union. Some well-known examples of unionized hospitals in Southern California include City of Hope National Cancer Center, Glendale Memorial Medical Center and USC-Norris Cancer Center. In California, unionized hospitals are the norm. In this case, Huntington is an outlier, and looking pretty bad. 

On Nov. 6, Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-Pasadema) and Pasadena City Council member Victor Gordo spoke at a rally supporting the Huntington nurses.  Representatives from ACT, All Saints Church, Healthcare for All, the NAACP Pasadena Branch, a teachers’ union, and other groups joined Chu at the rally

It should also be noted that other public service and health care professionals in California, such as firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians, have, in nearly all cases, strong unions.  Why does the management of Huntington Hospital have such a big problem with their RNs forming a union? More than 70 percent of those nurses are women. The two head honchos at Huntington, Ralph and Chairman of the Board James Rothenberg, are (surprise, surprise) men. Is it possible that there is some kind of gender discrimination going on?

Does Huntington have the resources to adequately staff and compensate its RNs and other frontline health care workers?  The answer is a resounding “yes.” According to the CNA, the hospital accrued $235 million in net revenue during the last five years and in 2013 made a $54.4 million profit. According to the Oct. 9 Pasadena Weekly, it even “provides millions of dollars annually in charity care.”   

By the way, the current union-busting in which the hospital is engaging is not the first time this has happened. In 2003 the National Labor Relations Board found the hospital in violation of federal labor law and required it to post a notice that stated, among other things, “Federal law gives you the right to form, join, or assist a union.”   

People don’t become RNs to get rich or powerful. RNs are special human beings who have a passion for ministering to sick and injured people. Someday we’re all going to need one. Thank goodness such individuals exist, and they richly deserve to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. 

So, Mr. Ralph, do the right thing. Obey the law and let your RNs form a union.