If Maine Medical Center were itself a patient, it’d be rushed into the ER with multiple gunshot wounds. Since nurses at Maine Med formally launched a unionization effort in January, the hospital’s top brass have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot.
In early February, Bill Nemitz, star columnist for the state’s largest newspaper, got a tip that Maine Med’s parent organization, MaineHealth, had given COVID-19 vaccinations to nearly all 22,000 of its employees — even those who have no direct contact with patients or staff — in violation of state guidelines. Adding insult to injury, in late January they’d vaccinated a bunch of high-priced lawyers and labor-relations consultants brought in from New York and Florida to bust the union, long after public-health officials had made it clear that out-of-staters were not to receive shots from Maine’s supply.
Soon after, flyers appeared all over downtown Portland with the names and faces of the anti-union consultants and lawyers. “WANTED!” the posters read, “For Union Busting and Stealing Covid Vaccines from Mainers.”
Gov. Janet Mills — whose sister, former Maine Center for Disease Control leader Dr. Dora Anne Mills, is a MaineHealth executive — called the healthcare network’s actions “inexcusable.” Over 10,000 potentially life-saving shots may have been improperly diverted from vulnerable seniors to white-collar office workers and managers.
MaineHealth CEO Bill Caron defended the vaccinations, telling Nemitz the hospital was “protecting infrastructure” in the event that, say, the marketing team had to staff an emergency vax tent. But readers could see what they were really protecting.
“Managers of Maine Med and MaineHealth chose to protect their low risk billing personnel before offering vaccine to the older people who look to MaineHealth clinics for care,” retired physician Wayne Myers, of Waldoboro, wrote in a Portland Press Herald op-ed last month. “Given the choice between protecting their high risk patients or the organization’s revenue, they chose revenue.”
This is basically the same argument the pro-union nurses are making: staffing shortages, worsened by overworked and underpaid nursing crews, are compromising patient care. In an op-ed published more recently by the Herald, Maine Med nurse Kathryn Norgang described “sick patients crowding the [Emergency Department] for days, not enough staff or resources for mental health patients and constant turnover exacerbated by scheduling and stagnant compensation.”
Instead of addressing these concerns by offering solutions, hospital management has been turning up the heat on the nurses ahead of this month’s unionization vote. In a March 19 opinion piece, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson wrote that Maine Med’s “anti-union tactics have become increasingly more aggressive.”
In a letter to Maine Med president Jeff Sanders, signed by Sen. Jackson and over 60 other state lawmakers, they wrote of nurses “being accosted in one-on-one anti-union meetings, dragged from patient care to listen to out of state anti-union consultants lecture them on why they should vote no for the democratic right to negotiate with their employer; and threatened by certain supervisors that they stand to lose benefits, or employment if they vote yes in the upcoming election.”
In an internal message to hospital employees, later posted on social media by union supporters, Sanders claimed the legislators’ letter contained “false accusations,” none of which were cited. He claimed Jackson, Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau and other signers were trying to “influence voters [in the union election] at the behest of union organizers.”
If the union is approved, 1,900 nurses at Maine Med and two other MaineHealth facilities would join the Maine State Nurses Association (MSNA), which already represents about 2,000 nurses working at other Maine hospitals. The MSNA is part of National Nurses United (NNU), the largest association of unionized nurses in the U.S., based in Oakland, California.
Over 1,500 Maine Med patients (current and former) signed a letter sent last month to hospital administrators supporting a union. “Too much is demanded of them,” they wrote of the nurses. “They put patients first, but too often they are not given the respect they deserve.”
In his memo, Sanders said he was “disappointed” that NNU organizers “would try to appropriate the voices of our patients and use them for their own purposes.” In Sanders’ view, not only are the leaders of the Maine Legislature actually puppets of the NNU, but a small town’s worth of patients are unwittingly being used to further the (purportedly purely selfish) interests of an organization headquartered across the country.
In another internal memo, this one authored by Chief Nursing Officer Devin Carr and leaked to a local TV station in January, the mid-level executive acknowledged, “Nurses will have to step away from caring for their patients and staffing vaccine clinics and testing centers in order to attend” the mandatory “training” or “captive audience” meetings with anti-union consultants. This was, Carr claimed, the pro-union nurses’ fault. “This is the kind of divisiveness a union brings to the workplace,” he wrote.
Nurses have complained for months that Maine Med is sending text messages to their personal cell phones, during off-work hours, containing links to anti-union videos. There are also two websites full of anti-union talking points directed at Maine Med nurses.
Homemade signs purporting to show grassroots opposition to a nurses’ union have popped up in the West End neighborhood around the hospital. The one across from my apartment promotes the site getthefactsmmc.org. In fact, no neighbor put up that sign: the property has been vacant for months.
The other site, mainenurseswhocare.com, is chockfull of false or misleading propaganda. “Hospital Unionization Harms the Sick” reads the headline of a 2012 piece on the site that was originally published online by the Capital Research Center, an arch-conservative think tank funded by the Koch family and their ilk. “Radical Nurses Union Appears Eager to Abandon Patients to Fulfill Radical Agenda” reads another headline, this one from 2011, originally published by another far-right site.
Among the many downloadable brochures on mainenurseswhocare.com was one that warned a union would bring “increased bling and colors” to the workplace — an apparent reference to racial diversity.
Joseph Brock, a principal of the union-busting firm Reliant Labor Consultants, one of the out-of-state companies hired by Maine Med this year, declined to answer any questions for this article, including whether the reference to “bling and colors” was race-related. Hospital spokesman Clay Holtzman also declined to comment, but then a funny thing happened. Within hours of our inquiry, the brochure was edited to change the line to “increased bling and red team colors” — whatever that means.
“It’s not uncommon historically for management to try and divide workers using race and ethnicity,” said Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director with the AFL-CIO, which is supporting the Maine Med nurses’ effort and includes NNU among its members. “The employer tries to do everything they can to make it seem like things will get out of control.”
Control is the operative concept here, said Matt Schlobohm, Executive Director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “Corporations oppose unionization because it gives workers more power,” he said. “It’s not as much about money as it is blocking workers having democratic rights in the workplace.”
Describing a union as an interloper or “third party” inserted into the worker-boss relationship is a canard “as old as time,” according to Schlobohm. “It’s just incredibly disingenuous and false,” he said. “If nurses at Maine Med vote to unionize, they will decide what their priorities are; what, together, they want to fight for in a first contract. They will decide the trade-offs. … Unions quite literally are the folks who work in the workplace coming together to have a voice in this.”
“It’s about power,” agreed longtime labor organizer Mike Cavanaugh, who met his wife, a nurse, during a union drive at Maine Med that fell short in the mid-1970s. “The management did not want to cede any power to their workers, so they used every tool they had,” he recalled, including corporate lawyers, anti-union consultants, and “the supervisor staff as their front-line, one-on-one campaigners to scare the shit out of the workers. They wanted the workers to think they’re going to lose things — in that case it was [to] New York, now it’s California.”
“The issues that spurred the workers [then and now] are so similar,” said Cavanaugh. “It fundamentally comes down to wanting to have a voice and being respected, being partners in deciding how their working lives are going to be managed.”
MSNA organizers did not respond to requests for comment.
The “Liberal” Union Buster
This latest effort to unionize Maine Med’s nurses began in 2019, but the pandemic has clearly pushed the issues that prompted it to the fore.
In a video produced by the hospital titled “COVID Made Us Vulnerable. Don’t Let the Union Take Advantage!” a nurse named Skye Ferrante said, “I worry that the union used this as their entry, as their ‘You are weak, you are tired, let us help you, let us fix it.’” But the intense pressures afflicting these brave workers cannot be eased by anyone or anything, Ferrante claimed. “It’s COVID. That’s what it is,” she said. “There’s no solution to it but to hunker down and just make our way through to the other side.”
The man apparently behind this fatalistic messaging, Brock, proudly bills himself as “The Unabashed Liberal Union Buster” in an essay he posted on LinkedIn two years ago. The brain trust at MaineHealth may have thought themselves wise to hire a self-described “liberal” to wage an anti-union campaign in the politically progressive Portland area. But as the appearance of Brock’s mug on wanted posters suggests, the hire seems more likely to backfire, becoming another bullet in the hoof.
Brock was a Teamsters official in Philadelphia for decades before he joined the dark side in 2007. He claims this organizing experience makes him an expert on how to defeat unions. “The real secret to breaking that union,” he wrote on LinkedIn, “… lies in preventing what the union needs for it to be successful in your workplace, and that is disaffection!”
Brock’s “inexpensive” and “common sense” blueprint to union-busting has three “easy” parts. One is: “Treat your employees with respect. … A pat on the back for the extra effort, the true appreciation for a job well done will always have your employees anxious for more, and less interested in the attentions of someone looking to impact that relationship.”
Another: “Give your employees a say in your workplace.” By this Brock doesn’t mean a board seat or any formal decision-making power. He means: “Hear them out and make them valued team members. Include them in the process and honestly care about their opinions.”
The third “secret” of the Liberal Union Buster is “Pay them fairly.” “This doesn’t necessarily mean more,” Brock hastened to add. “Fair is a much different standard, and one you would do well to attain.”
He provides an example: “Remember the baseball pitcher happy to earn 20 million a season to throw a baseball? Well, he’s only happy until you pay the next best [sic] guy 25 million. Your generosity just bought you a union!”
In her March 27 opinion piece, Maine Med nurse Norgang provided her own example. “Since MMC nurses filed for a union vote, the same hospital that cited limited resources and delayed annual [raises] doubled [travel-nurse] hires, advertising rates up to $124 an hour. That’s three times what experienced staff make.”
Brock’s pitch is that he prevents unions by convincing employers to give workers what they want. In a 2008 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, he claimed he’ll only take a consulting job if the employer is “willing to make the changes necessary if they want to keep the union out.”
Apparently Donald Trump fit that bill. In 2014, Brock was brought in to beat back a unionization drive at the Trump International Hotel, in Las Vegas. Writing on Medium, labor activist Matthew Hunt revealed Brock was paid $187.50 per hour, plus expenses, to take on the housekeepers, porters, cooks and bartenders at the hotel. (In December of 2016, long after Brock was off the job, and after hotel workers had protested at campaign events, Trump struck a deal with them: a four-year contract that includes “annual wage increases, a pension and company-funded health insurance,” the Washington Post reported.)
If Maine Med plans to take any similar steps to address the nurses’ grievances, they’re waiting until the last possible moment to announce them. The National Labor Relations Board mailed ballots to all eligible nurses on March 29, the day after this story went to press, and the ballots must be returned by April 27. At press time, there was no word of any new proposals by hospital management.
Instead, there’s been enough gaslighting to illuminate Victorian-era London, as richly compensated hospital executives repeatedly tell nurses how good they have it now, or point out that Maine Med virtuously decided not to fire nurses during the COVID crisis.
Brock’s backstory strains credibility, and his own union experience contradicts the advice he’s paid so handsomely to dish out.
For example, the reasons Brock left the Teamsters are murky at best. In his LinkedIn essay, he writes of “lessons” he learned while leading his union. “For me, unions were no longer (or perhaps never were) a social cause of fighting greedy corporate America for Americas [sic] middle class. In fact, what I saw in my own union was the embodiment of that very greed we were supposed to rally against. Our money was way more important to us than anything we could perhaps do for our members, and that greed took precedent [sic] over everything else we did.”
Left unsaid are any facts to support that central “fact,” or any hint as to when, during his more than two decades as a leader of Local 830, his union came to embody greed.
In 2008, Brock told the Inquirer he “never witnessed anything like [corruption]” at his union, and he made no mention of greedy behavior, complaining instead of “fixed” leadership elections and “fixed ratification votes.” In fact, Brock fought like hell to remain in his leadership position even after he was voted out in 2006 — the Inquirer reported that his narrow loss to longtime (and current) Local 830 Secretary-Treasurer Daniel Grace was a “nasty race” that was still, in ’08, “a matter of litigation.”
So a year after Brock had his epiphany and started his own anti-union consulting company, he was suing to regain a leadership role in a union he believed had been made useless by greed under his leadership.
There’s a lot of fear-mongering about strikes on the “Maine Nurses Who Care” website, but in 2004, during a faceoff with a Philly Coca-Cola bottler, Brock proved strikes are effective. The Inquirer reported that the soft-drink company offered Brock’s union drivers, bottlers and warehouse workers a 25-cent-per-hour raise in the first year of a new contract and “increased pension benefits.” The Local decided to strike for better terms. After 10 days off the job, with supermarket shelves growing bare of Coke products, the company caved and agreed to a 35-cent-per-hour raise, apparently the same “increased pension benefits,” and a one-time bonus of “up to $900.”
“We believe the strike was completely unnecessary and the contract could have been achieved without a strike had the union simply continued in good faith with the collective-bargaining process,” a bottling company executive told the paper.
“In today’s world, it’s hard for any union to shut down the employer, but they did,” Brock crowed to the reporter. “I hope and they hope that the employer gets the message about respect on the job.”