Union members protest lack of contract at CGH, two years after certification

CEO Steinke points to progress made in the last 7 months

CGH worker supporters march in the parking lot Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 ahead of the night’s board meeting.

STERLING – April 26 marked two years since CGH Medical Center employees won the right to unionize.

Now, it’s been two years and two months since contract negotiations began, with no agreement in sight, say frustrated union members.

That’s why about two dozen members and supporters showed up at CGH on Tuesday night, to protest what they say is management’s refusal to come to an agreement – an accusation the top hospital administrator denies.

After union members and supporters gathered on the east end of the campus about 5:30 p.m. with signs that read “Fair Contract for CGH Heroes,” Shelly Houzenga, a representative of the union bargaining committee, spoke to the 11-member board at its monthly meeting.

She also presented a petition with almost 800 signatures urging the board to take action.

The hope is that a show of strong community support will help move things along.

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. Certification was granted on Sept. 21, 2021.

AFSCME now represents around 700 registered nurses, certified nurse assistants, licensed practical nurses, phlebotomists, medical assistants and other health care workers in the CGH system, which employs about 1,600.

“We organized with AFSCME because we experienced rules and policies that were not followed consistently,” Houzenga, a medical technologist with CGH for 10 years, told the board. “CGH staff faced poor staffing, noncompetitive wages, and in general, many of us were just plain demoralized. Our union gave us hope.”

CGH leadership’s decision to spend more than $1 million in attorney fees fighting the establishment of the union and defending themselves against unfair labor charges are actions that, beyond squandering money, are damaging the medical center’s reputation in the community, Houzenga said.

(CGH 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 on March 28, 2022.)

“Our goal is, and always has been, to have genuine in a legally binding contract. Everyone would know the rules, and we would have a process that resolves disputes ... as CGH employees, we will not give up until we have the contract we deserve,” she said.

The petition, addressed to CGH CEO Paul Steinke and the board, read “Get your priorities straight! Instead of six-figure salaries, big raises and luxury trips for top management – and more than $800 an hour for anti-union attorneys – you should put patients first by settling a fair union contract with fair pay for the health care heroes who provide patient care and make CGH happen.”

Steinke responded to union complaints in an email sent to Sauk Valley Media midafternoon Tuesday.

“As everyone may or may not know, due to recent changes in Illinois law, CGH, as the employer, is greatly restricted on what we can say” about negotiations, Steinke said. “Importantly, CGH continues to bargain with the union in good faith.”

CGH, however, is in no way slowing down the process, he said.

“... over the last seven months, we have sat down with AFSCME at the bargaining table a total of six times,” he said, adding that CGH and the union also agreed to future meetings, dates for which have yet to be set.

“CGH has made several proposals to the union that have been accepted,” he added.

They are “July raises (same as non-union staff), health insurance premiums for next year at no increase (same as non-union staff), and discipline policy (same as non-union staff with minor changes to timing of the process),” he said.

“... there is progress being made. CGH continues their practice of delivering a proposal or counter-proposal at every bargaining session.

“So I repeat, CGH continues to bargain in good faith. We value all of our employees, union and non-union alike, and are committed to supporting everyone in carrying out our mission.”

A Nov. 21 collective bargaining update sent to supervisors to share with their workers, which was attached to the email, said bargaining sessions now consist of discussions on original topics that date back to the beginning of negotiations in September 2021.

They include policies governing seniority, filling of vacancies, layoff and recall, introductory periods, performance evaluations, vacation and leave, hours of work, on-call and call-in, and staffing bonuses.

AFSCME created a Facebook page, CGH employees union, where activities and updates are posted.

Kathleen Schultz

Kathleen A. Schultz

Kathleen Schultz is a Sterling native with 40 years of reporting and editing experience in Arizona, California, Montana and Illinois.