Johns Hopkins Hospital: Union-buster and predatory debt collector
Protest at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. | NNU

BALTIMORE—Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore may have a world-class reputation for medical research and care, but it’s anything but world-class in the way it treats its nurses and its neighbors.

And that contrast between reputation and reality brought almost 1,000 people to a mass demonstration in front of Hopkins’ original building, now its administrative offices, northeast of Baltimore’s downtown in 95-degree heat and humidity on July 20.

“Their cause is our cause,” Metro Baltimore AFL-CIO President Jermaine Jones told the crowd, which included members of AFSCME, the Auto Workers, the Letter Carriers, the Communications Workers, the Service Employees, Unite Here, the Government Employees, the Teachers (AFT), the Food and Commercial Workers, and the Electrical Workers.

Led by National Nurses United and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, the crowd demanded Hopkins stop waging all-out union-busting against NNU. Hopkins nurses want their union “so they can advocate for their patients,” NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, an RN from California, said. NNU members from New York, Philadelphia, and D.C. also showed up in solidarity.

Speakers also demanded Hopkins stop using collection agencies and low-road tactics to grab money from its low-income former patients—85% of them African-American—for small unpaid medical bills.

“When we lose our fear they lose their power!” – ‘Kesha’ Spence, lifelong Baltimore resident and Johns Hopkins patient speaking out against medical debt harassment. | NNU

“We are here to take a stand for what’s right,” declared Castillo. “We want to send a message to Hopkins management: People before profits.”

Hopkins’s 1,500 nurses approached NNU last year about joining the union, fed up with low pay, immense overtime, short-staffing which caused constant turnover, and, most importantly, harms to care for patients the hospital serves.

“We do the best we can, but we could do a better job if conditions were better,” nurse Derek Jannarone told People’s World.

Management responded to the nurses’ bottom-up organizing drive by spending millions of dollars on “consultants,” union-busting attorneys and by breaking labor law—so much so that the National Labor Relations Board has already ruled against it on five charges.

They include illegal bans on pro-union conversations outside work hours and work areas, illegal surveillance, and illegal questioning about union sympathies. It ordered Hopkins management to post the NLRB’s standard “we broke the law and we won’t do it again” notice, but no more.

“In my unit, I heard honest fear as much as bad staffing” was a problem, gynecology-oncology nurse Hillary Rabuck said in an interview. “My friend” who spoke up for patients and for unionizing “was intimidated. They were pushing her with ‘active discipline.’ Most of our nurses wrote a letter of support for her—but she left.”

When she started speaking out for her patients, and for NNU, former Hopkins leukemia unit nurse Kimberly Henriquez added, “All of a sudden, the assistant director started calling me into meetings, and checking on my charting, trying to find errors, and saying they would put me on suspension—next time. I didn’t feel secure, so I had to leave.” She’s now a nurse in Virginia.

Hopkins also garnered $2 billion in revenue last year, which hasn’t stopped it from dunning ex-patients in the poor, majority-Black neighborhoods around its campus for as little as $87 in unpaid medical bills.

In that case, the hospital’s debt collectors, armed with court decrees the patient—like others—didn’t even know about, seized an older woman’s entire checking account. And the debt collectors acted even after Hopkins received millions of dollars in state and local subsidies for charity care, which laws mandate for free or reduced-price care.

But Hopkins managers never told its poor patients about the availability of the subsidies, adds a report the AFL-CIO, the Coalition for a Humane Hopkins, and local groups released earlier this year.

“Hopkins Hospital has received $150 million in tax breaks” because it’s technically a not-for-profit institution, Castillo told the crowd. Meanwhile, “They’re using these predatory practices” to go after their poor neighbors, including 14% who work for Hopkins Hospital, for the unpaid bills. “And they never informed them (the poor) that they were eligible for charity care.”

“Nurses are here today because RNs know first-hand the impact of this hospital’s greed.”

Trumka, Shuler, Castillo, former patient LaKesha Spence—one of those who was dunned for unpaid costs after she had her baby at Hopkins—and other speakers tied all those points together, and tied them to national issues, too.

Specifically, Trumka said Hopkins’s actions show the need for congressional passage of strong labor law reform, the Pro Act, which would curb if not eliminate such union-busting tactics, levy strong fines for labor law-breaking, and otherwise enhance the right to organize.

“They are acting like the Walmart of medical centers,” said Trumka said of Hopkins, comparing the hospital to the notoriously anti-worker, anti-union retailer.

And Castillo said that if lawmakers approve Medicare For All—the government-run single-payer health care cause NNU has pushed for years—Spence and others like her would be free of such dunning, court suits, and debt collections.

Shuler concentrated on Hopkins dunning its poor neighbors. Residents of nine of the ten zip codes around the hospital’s campus have median incomes less than half of Maryland’s state median, and poverty rates ranging up to 49%, a recent report says. Yet those are the zip codes where Hopkins has pursued debtors, often endangering their finances or wiping them out, for years.

“We’re seeing a different Johns Hopkins,” Shuler said. “Live up to your values, Johns Hopkins. Is that too much to ask?”

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra plays “Solidarity Forever” for the crowd. | NNU

And the whole mess hurts patient care, too, nurses interviewed said.

‘The way the hospital treats its nurses forced them to leave after several years. The pay is bad and it directly affects our patients,” said Jannacone. “I work in transplants and the number of patients per nurse is higher than it should be—five” per nurse “during the day and six or seven at night.”

The protest also attracted Baltimore Symphony members of the Musicians Local 50-543, whose management locked them out in mid-April, when the orchestra rejected bosses’ demands to cut their season and their weekly pay, too. Five members of BSO’s brass section brought their instruments. Associate principal french horn player Gabrielle Finck juggled her instrument and her baby. The brass quintet ended the 2-1/2-hour rally by playing Which Side Are You On? and Solidarity Forever as the crowd clapped and sang.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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