When the Five Sisters Sold a Hospital

How a Management Team in Bend, Oregon, Yanked a Union from the Workers

It’s the “lifestyle thing,” stupid

Bend, Oregon, is right smack in the middle of several geologic, climatic and cultural zones. Sage, yucca, and the Deschutes River and the Two Sisters Peaks.

There’s an extinct volcano in the middle of town.

A mountain biker’s heaven. Kayaker’s nirvana. Snow lover’s orgasmic stomping grounds. Lots of retirees, lots of outdoor enthusiasts. Expensive clothing and rec stores. Many breweries. Restaurants galore.

I spent time there helping the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) rejigger the union vote the more than 600 employees — $9.50 an hour food service workers, housekeepers, CNAs, lab technicians, and others considered non-nurses – had accomplished March 2011.

It was a vote of 206 to 200 to unionize. A vote that meant workers would be at the bargaining table, working to have step raises, to have a say in staffing decisions, to make sure health care benefits were not degraded.

You see, some employees sought out SEIU Local 49 in Portland, Oregon, because they had seen nurses go through the same battle with the same management blokes a year before. The nurses organized, voted, and they too had management drag its feet and harass workers. In that process, nurses at St. Charles Hospital and the one in Prineville up the road coalesced, picketed and came together with 80 percent voting yes to a union.

Unionizing meant finding leaders, using media to air issues, and enlisting the support of the public.

At the table, the nurses got an 8.9 percent raise. They also got safety in numbers. They also created an environment of collectivism across the state, regularizing the wages and benefits and workplace conditions nurses elsewhere in Oregon already had bargained for through their Oregon Nurses Association.

Ya Can’t Do What You Never Learned

This sort of workforce empowerment is a no-brainer, but in a time of attacks on collective will and coalesced people power gleefully reported on mainstream media, we live in a culture of precarious work. It’s a time when students have no idea how the eight-hour work week came about, or what a living wage is, or why folk like Jill Stein, Green Party presidential candidate, or Ralph Nader, have called for an across-the-board rise in the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour, or more, $15.

This is a time when teachers can’t teach about labor history, about another narrative not bred from hocus-pocus religious cultism, or the bombast of elite North America fiction, or the exceptionalist mentality of an Empire on the wane. This is a time when up is down, double speak rules, and common sense is possibly dredged from the American collective consciousness through diets high in fructose, deep fried tacos-potato skins-Twinkies-turkey drumsticks, iPads, screen viewing, and flabby journalism and self-loathing democrats.

While teachers and janitors fight for students and wages, and while those in Colorado are fighting Romney’s Bain Capital parasite free marketing style; while a few get bashed for blockading Keystone pipeline construction, the bottom line is we as a country are scared of our own shadows.

In Bend, a place that was the life, blood, consciousness of native peoples – now there’s a Warm Springs reservation with a casino attacked to it – the great American delusion of Ron Paul heroism and Bush-Cheney intellectualism is constantly played out by buggers who think they are the epitome of rugged individualism and self-reliance. They just can’t get it how much more rural and isolated communities depend on the federal and state dole than the more congested urban centers.. With Romney-Ryan signs up throughout the rural community as testaments to a flabby white man/woman’s racism, the community’s largest employer – St. Charles Medical Center – “won” the fight to recertify the union for frontline low skill and skilled workers.

That win is everyone else’s loss – those that are the 70 percent of the 99 Percent.

Here’s a look at Bend’s top employers:

  1. St. Charles Medical Center, 2,337 employees
  2. Bright Wood Corporation, 1,466 employees
  3. Les Schwab Tire Center, 1,142 employees
  4. Sunriver Resort, 870 seasonal employees
  5. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., 750 seasonal employees

The New Normal — $9 an hour at three jobs a week

I talked with workers who said they were just glad to have a $9.50 an hour job. Others said that management had a right to want to make money: “America’s about making profits, and if they got to the top, then they deserve the top wages.” The irony is St. Charles is the most profitable non-profit hospital in Oregon. Administrators have been padding their ranks and raking in 15 percent pay raises while the employees have seen wages stagnate for five years.

Management is organized, preened, educated, tutored in communications and messaging, and they have power and money to denigrate unions and to confuse scared Americans who try to prop up a family in over-mortgage- laden homes, trailers in the middle of sagebrush, or in rundown apartments.

While St. Charles’ history goes back to 1922, tied to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Tipton, Indiana, the Catholics let the power go to a management team – non-profit, right !@# — who came in like university administrators ready to attack the vanguard – nurses, day-to-day workers – while putting style over substance, shunting patient care to the backburner in favor of overworking nurses and CNAs and disincentivizing patient care by killing raises and flagging steady schedules.

St. Charles represents the new normal – high paid administrators, constant hacking at the main stem of a business or operation – The Workers. Administrators could give squat about what the nurses have to say, or what dieticians have to say, or what CNAs across the state are saying.

The doctors grumble under their breaths but enjoy the lifestyle of skiing, river- running, mountain biking and foodie lifestyles.

The unionizing in a nutshell involves workers seeking redress, seeking a union like SEIU which represents janitors, hotel workers, day care providers, home health care professionals, lab techs at college, and now higher education part-time workers.

Those first few brave St. Charles workers came to SEIU, and then the hard work began. Involving secret organizing and finding the key leaders and the ready activists, the project is a simple one – get people organized to get a vote ready for the entire bargaining group.

In the meantime, the boss fight might include firing folk, threatening folk and putting propagandists on the payroll in order to confuse, lie and flag the movement to bring workers together, with the help of a union’s organizing machinery.

The management pukes spent a year dragging their feet and threatening folk instead of bargaining at the table on what the main stem of the hospital knew were key issues in patient care improvement and workplace solidarity. Wages and benefits were part of the bargaining, but like true capitalists, the administration’s take was: ”We know what’s best for us, the highly paid, for what we consider the best for patients, and, what we are willing to dole out to workers, the obviously weak link in our plan to capitulate with bankers and maximize our profits.”

The Takers and the Givers: Another Ishmael Narrative

This is an old story in unionizing history – workers come together and the bosses fight them. Here, at St. Charles, the management hired a law firm from California known as a union-busting outfit, and, then, just a month ago, another one, second to none, from NYC, Burke and Company. These high paid legal thugs and merchandizing creeps are experts in eviscerating righteous workers and valid collectivism. The stoop low to do almost anything to stop a yes vote for the union.

They, like the St. Charles Admin folk, are the takers of the world.

Doctors who have jelly for spine and the misinformed misanthropes who wave the anti-union red, white, blue flag of corporate fascism, well, they too play into the hands of fumbling small-town newspaper publishers and rotting-at-the-core wise use-spouting Chambers of Commerce.

What’s good for business in places like Bend, Oregon, are wages that hit $9.50 an hour, overworked hospital folk, and a workforce that continually sees the wage gap grow, hoofing it in a town set up for the 1 percent and their sycophants of the 19 percent.

Young CNAs I talked with work bizarre hours while juggling nursing school. Bend is just another lifestyle place where beer tasting contests and ski fashion shows and a new kayak water park will draw more out of towners and newly transplanted folk who got it rich or near rich on selling off parents’ homes and coming to town with bags of money.

America’s new main street is a cotton candy world of boutiques, exotic foods, $500 vases, $10,000 alpaca rugs, and endless titanium junk to enable the new American recreationist plenty of tools to conquer fresh snow, class five rapids and endless desert single track paths.

The people healing these folk, wiping their butts when they are waylaid in the hospital, those x-raying broken hips, those prepping for liposuction and Botox reconfiguring, all those people slopping food for docs and pushing mops for the administration’s new ash hardwood, all of those and more vote for the candidates and CEOs who never have or will have their best interests in mind.

Now, the union is busted, and, ironically, the health care plan will be junked, forcing employees to go through a mandatory wellness plan that will include fat pinchers to bust the overweight and a smokilizer to catch the Marlboro aficionados. For them, insurance rates quadruple.

For the compliant, who stay thin and forego cigs and pot and booze, they will find premiums going up, family members’ coverage reduced, work schedules tweaked, Draconian cuts, permanent part-time categorization and a climate of fear.

One Percent and their 19 Percent Sycophants

Bend, Oregon, grows weekly, the county expands, breweries thrive, organic sandwich shops pop up, and used ski gear galore.

While charcuteries open up, pawn shops pop up. More and more Americans living on two sides of the divide – that One Percent Plus 19 percent More, up against the realities of the 70 percent working three jobs.

St. Charles is glad to beat back the union. Happy that CNAs flip burgers, albeit grass-fed buffalo patties, to make ends meet.
The CEOs and Chamber of Commerce folk wine and dine and talk about kids at Smith College, weekend trips to Maui, home improvement projects on their 7,500 square foot bungalows.

This is the face of agnotology – look it up. See how it plays out in America, the land of PT Barnum, hucksters, tinsel, plastic surgery and endless Black Fridays.

Here’s Robert Procto, Stanford historian of science Robert Proctor, on Agnotology:

When it comes to many contentious subjects, our usual relationship to information is reversed: Ignorance increases.
Proctor has developed a word inspired by this trend: agnotology. Derived from the Greek root agnosis, it is “the study of culturally constructed ignorance.

As Proctor argues, when society doesn’t know something, it’s often because special interests work hard to create confusion. Anti-Obama groups likely spent millions insisting he’s a Muslim; church groups have shelled out even more pushing creationism. The oil and auto industries carefully seed doubt about the causes of global warming. And when the dust settles, society knows less than it did before.

“People always assume that if someone doesn’t know something, it’s because they haven’t paid attention or haven’t yet figured it out,” Proctor says. “But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth—or drowning it out—or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what’s true and what’s not.”

So, leaving Bend, Oregon, last month, I saw the writing on the wall. It was obvious to me that these poor folk I talked to at their apartment and trailer doors, trying to see the union solution to stagnation, poor work conditions, rotten guidance, arbitrary discipline, and rotten benefits, many have been the products of culturally constructed ignorance.

And this fawning over people who drive BMWs, live in lavish luxury, who wine and dine the famous, who stand tall in Brooks Brothers suits and Bill Blass dresses. If they quack like a One Percent Quack, Oink like a Rich Pig, Bark like a Beast of the Vanities, then, hell, they must deserve everything they worked so hard to earn.

Where’s mine?

Not in the union brand. Not through collective action. Not through a group of workers coming together and believing that sharing power with management will lift their lives collectively.

In Bend, just like in Madison,” shared power” is a phrase akin to “”pinko fag to the One Percent.

Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Here's his Amazon page with more published work Amazon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.