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Judge: CGH Medical Center violated labor law during unionization efforts

Sterling hospital reviewing its appeal options

STERLING – CGH Medical Center violated state labor law by posting a letter that included instructions on how employees could revoke their union membership, an Illinois Labor Relations Board judge ruled.

Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees filed majority-interest petitions in December 2019 with the Illinois Labor Relations Board for union certification following months of meetings and gatherings with interested staff. On April 26, 2021, the union was certified as the exclusive representative of its members.

AFSCME now represents 712 registered nurses, certified nurse assistants, licensed practical nurses, phlebotomists, medical assistants and other health care workers in the CGH system, which employs around 1,600 people.

The union and CGH have yet to approve their first collective bargaining contract, and both previously filed different complaints against the other with the state labor board regarding practices during the unionization process.

Administrative Law Judge Anna Hamburg-Gal issued a decision March 28 that a letter by CGH President and CEO Paul Steinke “had a reasonable tendency to interfere with, restrain, coerce, deter, and/or discourage employees from becoming or remaining members of a labor organization, authorizing representation by a labor organization, or authorizing dues or fee deductions to a labor organization.”

The 18-page ruling goes on to say that the letter “discouraged and deterred employees from authorizing support for the Union and remaining members of the union because it made disparaging statements about the union and the deleterious effect of unionization while offering assistance to employees in revoking their authorization cards.

“The Respondent suggested that the Union would waste the dues it collected on high-priced lawyers who would file frivolous unfair labor practice charges with the Board. The Respondent also stated that unionization would destroy employees’ relationship with the Respondent.

“The Respondent then presented employees with prospective relief from these anticipated harms: It informed employees that they had the right to revoke their union authorization cards, provided a link to a form letter employees could use to submit their revocation, and an address to which they could send the revocation letter to effectuate their withdrawal of support for the union.”

It further states the letter is additionally coercive because it encouraged employees to report revoking their union card to human resources.

“After the Respondent provided instructions to employees on how to revoke their authorization cards, the Respondent informed employees that it would be ‘a good idea to send a copy of the [completed revocation] letter to HR for your file.’ A reasonable employee would likely feel pressured to revoke their support for the union where, as here, an employer presents the employee with assistance in revoking support for the union and indicates that it will be keeping track of which employees follow through with revocation.”

CGH purchased a full-page ad to feature the letter in the Dec. 18, 2019, edition of Sauk Valley Media’s Daily Gazette that also appeared on saukvalley.com and cghmc.org titled “Letter to the Editor: CGH Union Not a Certainty,” written by Steinke.

Just a couple of days later on Dec. 20, Gov. JB Pritzker approved tighter labor law provisions including that it shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer or its agents: to interfere with, restrain, coerce, deter, or discourage public employees or applicants to be public employees from: becoming or remaining members of a labor organization; authorizing representation by a labor organization; or authorizing dues or fee deductions to a labor organization

The union filed its charge on Jan. 26, 2021, and a hearing was scheduled June 30, 2021 for the complaint.

CGH argued that the complaint was invalid because it was made outside the 6 month window to file.

Hamburg-Gal ruled that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that the union should have known about the letter within the 6-month time period.

The letter remained posted on the CGH website until July 6, 2021, which also was found to be a violation because the union became the sole representative for members on April 26.

“We’re gratified that Paul Steinke and management are being held accountable for their anti-worker actions,” AFSCME Council 31 Regional Director Doug Woodson said. “Steinke’s continued pattern of anti-worker behavior is particularly disappointing given the pandemic that has called CGH healthcare workers to go above and beyond to care for their community.”

CGH was ordered to cease and desist from practices violating state labor law, to post copies of the decision visible to employees for 60 days and to notify the board of steps taken to comply with the order within 20 days.

The hospital has 30 days to appeal.

CGH issued the following statement in response to the ruling:

“CGH Medical Center (CGHMC) has been bargaining in good faith with representatives from the AFSCME, Council 31, since September of 2021 in an effort to reach agreement on terms and conditions of employment for CGHMC’s AFSCME-represented staff.

“Recently, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a recommended decision to the state labor board concerning two letters written more than two years ago that informed CGH employees about their legal rights during union organizing. After those letters were written, the ALJ found that new state legislation imposed a new, broader gag order on CGHMC and other public employers.

“We are disappointed in the ALJ’s recommendation to the state labor board. We believe that the First Amendment protects the right of employees to hear from all sides, not just unions. The decision is not final, and we are reviewing our appeal options.

“We respect the rights of our all CGHMC employees and value their commitment to our patients and the community we serve.”

Rachel Rodgers

Rachel Rodgers

Rachel Rodgers joined Sauk Valley Media in 2016 covering local government in Dixon and Lee County.