A state labor board judge says that before the union’s formation in 2021, the hospital’s CEO illegally wrote letters and emails discouraging workers from organizing.
STERLING, Ill. — A judge with the Illinois Labor Relations Board said CGH Medical Center violated state labor law by deterring employees from unionizing.
On March 28, Judge Anna Hamburg-Gal wrote that a “letter to the editor” penned by the hospital’s CEO, Dr. Paul Steinke, discouraged, deterred and coerced employees from organized labor including instructing employees on how to revoke their union membership.
That letter remained on CGH’s website from Dec. 20, 2019, to July 6, 2021, according to court documents.
Now, the judge has recommended that the hospital stop “interfering” with the relationship between the CGH employees and the union. Eventually, the Illinois Labor Relations Board will approve or deny the recommendation.
CGH Medical System has 30 days from the judge’s decision to file an exception.
Employees begin organizing
CGH employees began organizing into a union in June 2019. It was formally certified by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union on April 26, 2021.
Throughout those two years, workers allege the management at CGH frequently tried to put a stop to it.
“Leadership from the very beginning deterred people from the union,” said Brandi Barron, an AFSCME organizer. “A lot of the talk was that you won’t be able to talk directly with management or your supervisor if you have issues. Many people who worked here at CGH know that you were never able to do that and that’s why they wanted to form a union so they could actually have a voice for the work that they do.”
Barron worked at CGH as a medical assistant and EMR trainer for eight years. She was one of the first employees to begin the organization process, something she says she was fired for.
“I helped form the union here at CGH and I was retaliated against for organizing a union and was eventually terminated,” Barron said. Now, she’s fighting that termination in court.
In the July-August 2019 edition of “On the Move” AFSCME Council 31 reported that CGH employees were facing a ‘culture of fear’ and worried about staffing levels and high turnover rates.
CGH pushes back
Shortly after employees began to discuss unionizing, Steinke sent an email to all CGH staff in June 2019 according to court documents.
In the email, he said he learned of AFSCME representatives visiting employees’ houses and reminded employees that they were not required to speak to the union and should call the police if they felt threatened. He also wrote that signing a union card would be the first, last and only “vote” as a municipality, court documents show.
Hamburg-Gal wrote that the end of the email stated, “We prefer to continue our open-door policy and dealing directly with you — our most valuable asset. My belief is that remaining union-free helps us continue our caring tradition.”
On Dec. 13, 2019, CGH’s human resource director sent an email to all staff informing them of how to revoke their union authorization cards. The note also had a link to a sample revocation letter as well as the address it needed to be sent to.
Court documents state, “The email further noted that ‘it is also a good idea to send a copy of the letter to HR for your file.'”
Just a few days later, on Dec. 18, 2019, a document titled “Letter to the Editor, CGH Union Not a Certainty, By Dr. Paul Steinke, CGH President and CEO” was posted to the company’s website, in the Sterling Daily Gazette and on saukvalley.com.
That letter is the heart of Hamburg-Gal’s decision.
It pushed back on staffing ratio concerns, saying CGH’s were the best in the nation. Steinke also wrote that CGH had not used scare tactics and had remained neutral.
At the end of the address, it offered the Illinois Department of Labor’s phone number, saying any employee who had been pressured by AFSCME should file a formal complaint.
“It is not too late to change your mind if you already signed a card,” read the letter, before telling employees how to revoke their membership and again saying it would be a “good idea” to send a copy of that revocation to the center’s HR department.
Steinke’s letter concluded by saying anyone with questions or concerns could contact him or HR directly.
That letter ended up remaining on CGH’s website until July 6, 2021, more than two months after the hospital’s union was certified.
The judge’s findings
Illinois law states an employer cannot interfere with, coerce or discourage public employees from anything to do with a labor organization.
It also excludes free speech protections from anyone reasonably viewed as coercing employees exercising protected rights, said Hamburg-Gal.
“(CGH’s) letter had a reasonable tendency to interfere with, restrain, coerce, deter, and/or discourage employees from becoming or remaining members of a labor organization,” Hamburg-Gal wrote in her decision.
She found that the letter made disparaging statements about the union by saying AFSCME would waste member dues on lawyers filing ‘frivolous’ charges. It also said the union would destroy the relationship between CGH management and employees.
Hamburg-Gal also wrote that the letter offered a solution, by telling employees how to revoke their union cards.
Combined, she says that violates Section 10(a)(8) of the state’s labor law by qualifying as coercion.
“(CGH’s) letter is additionally coercive because it sought to elicit information about whether employees availed themselves of (CGH’s) proffered assistance to revoke their authorization cards,” Hamburg-Gal wrote.
She added that reasonable employees would likely feel pressured to annul their membership since “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.”
But that wasn’t the only section of the law she said was violated.
Because the post remained published even after the union was certified, Hamburg-Gal said it also violated Section 10(d) in two different ways.
First, the letter suggested employees file complaints with the state’s department of labor. Doing so after the union was formed interferes with the relationship between union workers and their exclusive bargaining representative.
Second, the end of the letter said any questions or concerns could be directed to CGH. Failing to refer union-related questions to the exclusive bargaining representative also violated the act, she said.
The next steps
As written at the end of her 18-page report, Hamburg-Gal recommended CGH cease and desist from:
- Interfering with, restraining or coercing its employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed them in the Act.
- Interfering with, restraining coercing, deterring, or discouraging its employees from: (i) becoming or remaining members of a labor organization; (ii) authorizing representation by a labor organization; or (iii) authorizing dues or fee deductions to a labor organization.
- Interfering with the relationship between employees and their exclusive bargaining representative.
- Failing to refer all inquiries about union membership, exclusive of payroll processes, to the exclusive bargaining representative.
Now, CGH has an opportunity to appeal.
Where things stand now
Nearly one year after roughly 850 CGH employees certified their AFSCME union, they still do not have their first contract agreement. Both sides have accused the other of delaying the process.
But for now, the union is considering the judge’s ruling a win.
“(Steinke) basically told people how to revoke their cards and he was found guilty of trying to get in the way of people forming a union, which is their legal right to do,” Barron said.
She said at the time of CGH’s publication of that letter to the editor, the culture inside the hospital was a discouraged one.
“It was just discouraging for others,” Barron said. “It put a lot of doubt in people’s minds, you know. This is management, we’re supposed to trust them, so would they be telling us lies?”
After the judge’s recommendation of a labor violation, Barron said it was a relief.
“I cried. It was pretty emotional just because I knew that finally, Paul Steinke would have to be told you are wrong,” she said. “It means he knows now that there is no anti-union propaganda allowed. And if he does disperse anti-union propaganda, he will be held accountable just like he was this time.”
If approved, the judge’s recommendation doesn’t appear to impose any fines on CGH. But Barron says that doesn’t worry her.
“This is is the first time that they’ve been told to knock it off and to follow the law,” she noted. “We as the union will make sure that those workers are treated fairly: respect, dignity, they receive the wage benefits, they have the working conditions that they all deserve for the community, for themselves and also for better patient care here at CGH Medical Center.”
In a statement to News 8, the hospital system said:
“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.”
The public health system tells News 8 it has roughly 1,600 employees.