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Jewish Journal

Jewish Groups Stay Silent on Union Vote

by Mike Levy

December 12, 2002 | 7:00 pm

A showdown between Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and hundreds of its registered nurses over unionizaton will come to head after three days of balloting ending Friday, Dec. 13.

The hospital has strongly opposed the registered nurses push to be represented by the California Nurses Association (CNA) which represents 45,000 nurses at 150 hospitals in the state. According to observers, upwards of half of the 1,500 registered nurses eligible to take part in the vote may side with the hospital. Both sides have assailed each other in the days leading up to the vote.

The nurses have accused the medical center of illegal activities, while the hospital has said the nurses' actions have disrupted patient care.

The medical center, which marked its 100th anniversary this year, was founded by the Los Angeles Jewish community to treat Jewish tuberculosis patients. It is now the largest nonprofit hospital in the West. It receives much of its funding from Jewish foundations, individuals and organizations.

But one contingent that hasn't weighed in on the labor dispute is liberal Jewish groups and rabbis. Their traditionally pro-labor voices have been far less than strident on behalf of the nurses.

One exception has been State Assemblyman Paul Koretz, who chairs the Assembly's Labor Committee. Describing himself as a "longime labor supporter, and also a longtime supporter of Cedars Sinai," Koretz told The Journal that based on his information, "It appears [Cedars Sinai] may be engaging in behavior beyond the pale of accepted labor practices."

But Koretz's voice has been almost a solitary one.

"Open almost any [Jewish] text, you will find references to the dignity of labor," said Michael Nye, president of the Jewish Labor Committee.

But, like the rest of the organized community, the JLC is not involved in the Cedars-Sinai debate. The lack of involvement is a source of some wonder to the pro-union nurses, but completely understandable to others. The fact that many nurses oppose unionization has dampened support for those in favor of it. In addition, Cedars Sinai's positive reputation among Jews makes painting it as a villain a tough sell.

"The fact is at any other hospital the kinds of allegations we're hearing would be frustrating," said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. "I believe Cedars Sinai has benefitted from the fact that people in the community think of it as our community hospital. But I understand [Cedars] might be frustrated to be held to account for that reason. "

Skokatch sent a letter to Cedars Sinai officials inquiring about the nurses' complaints. He did not hear back, and said he has not followed up.

The unionization campaign began in September, when Cedars-Sinai nurses voted to schedule the election, which will be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. CNA community organizer Joe Newlin said 65 percent of the nurses voted in favor of the election.

Linda Burnes Bolton, Cedars-Sinai vice president for nursing, told The Journal, "The most important thing is to have an organization that upholds the professional practice of nursing. Having someone come in the middle of that interferes with the quality of our nursing practice."

The hospital has hired independent consultants to conduct an informational campaign to persuade nurses to vote against the union. As part of the consultants' campaign, nurses have been required to attend two one-hour informational sessions, one on wages and benefits and the other on the National Labor Relations Act.

The CNA views the informational meetings as pressure tactics. Carin Morin, a former Cedars-Sinai nurse who is helping CNA organize the medical center, told The Journal, "So many of the nurses are afraid to speak out. I'm a nurse, I'm a Jew, and there are a lot of disturbing aspects of this for me."

Jeanne Flores, Cedars-Sinai senior vice president for human resources and organizational development, denied the charges, saying, "We conducted voluntary meetings. In the course of conducting those, it became clear that a lot of the nurses did not understand the wages and benefits available, and there was some confusion about the National Labor Relations Act." The mandatory meetings were then held to address those issues, Flores said.

This week's vote will not be the first time nurses at Cedars-Sinai have attempted to unionize. In 1983, Service Employees International Union led an effort to organize all of the hospital's nurses, rather than just the more highly trained RNs. The effort failed.

Rabbi Allen Freehling, who was then senior rabbi at University Synagogue, recalled that during the 1983 union campaign, "a number of us [rabbis] who are community activists went to the hospital to learn from both sides....The administrators at that time told us that Cedars-Sinai was not a Jewish medical center and asked us to back away from the issue."

Freehling, who now serves as executive director of the city Human Relations Commission, attended a meeting of the nurses organizing with CNA in November and heard their grievances, but had not yet spoken with hospital administrators.

Flores, the hospital's senior vice president for human resources and organizational development, said Cedars-Sinai had not heard or sought comments from Jewish community representatives on the issue.

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