Where Have You Gone, Norma Rae?
© Jack Cashill
A Kansas City nurse tried to counter her employer's unionization vote, only to realize she was facing a stacked deck.
You can read The Kansas City Star from now until wood pulp is banned, and you won’t read an article, at least a sympathetic one, about a woman like Mary Hill. A Kansas City registered nurse and mother of three, Hill made the tragic PR mistake of believing you should not have to join a union if you didn’t want to.
The media at large have no use for the Mary Hills of the world, certainly not Hollywood. Movie moguls prefer their protagonists to wear a union label, a touch radical maybe in their battle against the capitalist bully-boys, but still as cute and perky as Gidget.
Hollywood gave Sally Fields an Oscar for her role as “Norma Rae,” but then again, Hollywood gave an Oscar and a standing O to a guy who had fled the country after drugging and raping a 13-year-old. If the moguls had any real interest in righting wrongs, they would tell the story of Mary Hill. It is not quite as dramatic as Norma Rae’s, but it is very nearly as scary—and much, much closer to the contemporary norm.
In 2010, Hill worked at the Brookside campus of Research Medical Center, which had been acquired a few years prior by HCA (Hospital Corporation of America). That summer the NNU, National Nurses United, targeted the nurses at Research, and a second union, the SEIU, Service Employees International Union, targeted the service personnel. If some employee actually requested that the unions get involved, that was news to Hill.
The unions finessed their way into Research and other HCA hospitals across the nation through a procedure known as a “neutrality and card check” agreement, one that Hill thought well-named, given that it “neutralized all opposition to unionization.”
To be sure, HCA collaborated with the unions, but I suspect it did so about as enthusiastically as France collaborated with Germany circa 1940–1945. The SEIU, in particular, had clout. As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2009, SEIU president Andrew Stern “visited the White House 22 times between Inauguration Day and July 31, meeting with President Barack Obama seven times and leading all visitors recorded during that period.”
Three months before the unions descended on Research, Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law. All hospital systems had to be feeling the heat, especially Republican-owned, for-profit ones like HCA.
As Hill tells the story, both unions set up camp in conference rooms next to the lunchrooms at each facility. On most days, union reps offered free food to attract employees. When Hill stopped by to grab a bite one day, a rep asked her to sign an authorization card.
As the rep explained, if 30 percent of the authorization cards were signed, “we” would hold an election to see if the RNs wanted a union. “But,” the rep added sotta voce, “if we get 50 percent + one of the cards signed, we are just in.”
Hill did not object to unionization per se, but she did object to the unions bivouacked at Research. These unions funneled their campaign money almost exclusively to Democrats, which she wasn’t, and supported Obamacare, which she didn’t. Given the constitutional right of free assembly, why, she wondered, would she want to assemble with these people?
Undaunted, the union reps continued to hector her. What pushed Hill to lead the resistance was a promotional mailer sent to her home with an authorization card attached. When Hill asked the folks in human resources how the unions got hold of her home address, HR refused to answer. Compelled to create a “neutral environment,” HR would answer no question of any kind.
With management silenced, Hill decided to call a meeting to discuss the realities of unionization. When she asked the hospital for a room in which to hold that meeting, she learned just how subjective the word “neutral” was.
In denying her request, management claimed that an informational meeting was “not in the mission of the hospital.” Curiously, this same management promoted the unions’ initial meetings, “encouraged” employees to attend, and promised they would be paid for their time.
Abandoned by management, Hill contacted the National Right to Work Foundation to learn what options, if any, she had in a state like Missouri without right-to-work protection. After reviewing her story, the foundation filed unfair labor practice charges on Hill’s behalf against HCA, the SEIU and the NNU with the National Labor Relations Board.
With the case pending, the hospital finally allowed Hill and her allies to use an out-of-the-way conference room. On one occasion, Hill used metal signs to guide her fellow nurses. This, she soon learned, was a no-no. The hospital attorney made her take them down under the pretext that the unions weren’t using any. They didn’t need any, Hill wanted to scream. You can’t get to lunch walking through their propaganda minefields.
Says Hill, “I was marginalized as a person in so many ways. I felt intimidated. I was treated like dirt.” Fellow employees would press Hill to stop her campaign against the unions in inappropriate places and in inappropriate ways. “It was horrible,” says Hill. “Horrible.”
In a curious twist on the Norma Rae phenomenon, rumors were circulated about Hill’s private life. One rumor had her married to a top administrator. In the movie, of course, it was anti-union people who spread the rumors. Said one organizer, “If the company wants us to look bad, they’ll use anything they can to make us look bad.” Those were the days.
On Aug. 30, 2010, The Star uncritically summed up the results of Hill’s crusade, “A federal agency [the NLRB] has dismissed complaints against the owner of Research Medical Center and two unions, finding nothing wrong with an agreement reached amid an organizing drive.”
Nothing wrong? Those are two un-nerving words. They suggest that either Mary Hill was a crackpot who made the whole story up, or that the unions and management did nothing wrong at Research. “This is why,” says Hill, summing up, “I am driven to get a Right to Work law in Missouri.”
In the way of denouement, Hill never had to pay union dues. Research laid her off after 10 years of service—before the union contract went into effect.
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