Last month's ruling by a federal judge in a case involving nurses trying to unionize at a Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. hospital sheds an unflattering light on the labor practices of the nation's largest hospital chain.
The scathing 202-page decision by John H. West, an administrative law judge assigned to the National Labor Relations Board, portrays the hospital giant as so militantly anti-union that it was willing to break the law to stop the nurses from organizing. And it contains a searing description of the anti-union tactics of Columbia's No. 2 executive, David Vandewater.
West's decision, issued March 31 in Washington, orders Columbia Audubon Hospital in Louisville, Ky., to recognize the Nurses Professional Organization as the bargaining agent for about 600 registered nurses. The union is an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME.
The judge said Columbia had created such an atmosphere of intimidation during a labor election in 1994 that a fair election was not possible.
Columbia spokesman Jeff Prescott said: "We're disappointed with the ruling. We believe we acted appropriately in that situation. We're reviewing our options right now." Columbia could appeal the decision.
The 480-bed hospital is Columbia's flagship in Louisville, its former headquarters town. The hospital lost $3 million on $137 million in net patient revenues in 1995, according to HCIA, a healthcare information company based in Baltimore (See related story, p. 60).
West found that Vandewater, Columbia's president and chief operating officer, personally "threatened employees."
The decision describes several visits Vandewater made to patient-care floors to talk with nurses about various issues. In one incident, Vandewater sought out a particular nurse, Stacy Doyon.
Doyon said Vandewater told nurses that he would not negotiate with the union: "No Columbia hospital has ever negotiated in the past and we will not negotiate," she recalled him saying, according to West's opinion.
In his testimony, Vandewater denied making such a statement.
The judge found that Vandewater, at 6 feet 3 inches, tried to intimidate Doyon, at 5 feet 6 inches, by squeezing her hand too hard in a concluding handshake that was witnessed by a number of other nurses.
On the basis of their testimony, West wrote that Doyon "impressed me as being a credible witness. Vandewater did not. He was incapable of conceding even the obvious without prodding when faced with his own document."
Vandewater also said during his testimony that of Columbia's 337 hospitals (the chain now has almost 350), fewer than 10 have had collective bargaining agreements. All of those contracts predated Columbia's acquisition of the hospitals. Vandewater said that not a single hospital has changed from unorganized to organized during Columbia's ownership.
Testimony also was given about shortages of staffing on patient floors that alarmed nurses and physicians. One charge nurse said she had been disciplined in her performance review for complaining too often about understaffing.
The judge found that, among other things, Audubon raised wages in an attempt to defeat the union's campaign. Some nurses were led to believe they would lose their benefits if the union won an organizing election in March 1994. The union lost that election, 366 against to 220 in favor. And the company punished nurses who actively recruited for the union.
"We think it's kind of a momentous decision," said Kay Tillow, an organizer for the Nurses Professional Organization. "Columbia is such a huge company, they violated the law so badly, that they are being ordered to bargain. The judge is saying there is not a chance for a free election now, because of the indication they will continue to violate the law."
Columbia's Prescott disagreed with the view that his company pulls out all the stops to prevent workers from organizing. "We're not anti-union," he said. "We respect the rights of our employees to make decisions on being represented by a third party if they so choose. Where we have representation like that, we bargain with them in good faith."