Defying Health Care Advocates, SEIU-UHW Backs Sutter’s CPMC Mega-Hospital

by Randy Shaw on March 24, 2010

Breaking with a large coalition of community groups and citywide health care advocates, SEIU-UHW has agreed to publicly support Sutter Health’s controversial 550-bed CPMC mega-hospital planned for San Francisco. The proposed project has aroused widespread opposition among citywide health care advocates, as it is linked with Sutter’s plan to reduce acute care beds by 60% at its St. Luke’s Hospital in the city’s heavily Latino Mission District. This has spawned a broad “Coalition for Health Planning – San Francisco,” to address principles of health justice and equity in the city.

In addition, a broad “Good Neighbor Coalition” (GNC) of groups including St. Anthony’s Foundation Medical Clinic, Meals on Wheels, and the Housing and Urban Health division of the city’s Department of Public Health have spent months preparing a Community Benefits Agreement to address the impacts of Sutter’s proposal. The GNC seeks to ensure that the project does not negatively impact the surrounding community, and “that medical services provided are accessible, affordable, and equitably distributed.” But even before negotiations could begin, SEIU-UHW cut its own deal with Sutter on March 11, 2010, unconditionally backing the project.

As SEIU-UHW battles to convince workers that it is the union that can best assure quality patient care and health services, it will need to explain why it entered into a Side Letter with Sutter Health to “publicly and privately support the Medical Center’s building projects … including but not limited to meeting with San Francisco public officials to express support for the building projects and supporting the projects at city hearings.”

The Side Letter even authorized Sutter to assign SEIU-UHW workers to spend work hours building support for the project.

In other words, while citywide health advocates fight to save the scaling down of St. Luke’s Hospital, and while nonprofits in the area surrounding the proposed CPMC mega-hospital on Van Ness Avenue are demanding that Sutter sign an enforceable Community Benefits Agreement, SEIU-UHW has already agreed to serve as lobbyists for the proposal.

Or to put it more bluntly, while the California Nurses Association and virtually every health care advocacy group is fighting to save St. Luke’s Hospital and force Sutter to sign an enforceable agreement protecting the community, SEIU-UHW has already sided with the employer.

Community Anger at SEIU-UHW

As I informed community health care advocates about SEIU-UHW’s Side Letter agreement with Sutter for this story, the reaction was nearly universal anger.

Kathy Looper, who owns the historic Cadillac Hotel in the Uptown Tenderloin and whose husband Leroy was once a community representative on the Board of St. Luke’s, was shocked by SEIU-UHW’s actions. “This is outrageous, “ she said, “a union that claims to care about patient care should not be going against a coalition seeking to ensure that the medical needs of low-income people are protected.”

Terrrie Frye, an Uptown Tenderloin low-income resident who has long fought to save St. Luke’s, said she was “disgusted” by SEIU-UHW’s support for Sutter’s proposal. “This is just awful. They did this with no community input. I’m surprised that a union that claims to care about health care would make such a deal.”

Joseph Smooke, Executive Director of the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, said: “it is sad to learn of this since we have worked so hard for so many years now to build and sustain a coalition of labor and community organizations and individuals to hold corporate healthcare interests accountable. It raises the question – what does SEIU expect to gain from selling out to CPMC?”

Smooke’s organization runs a program for the frail elderly that had received funding from CPMC. Once Smooke’s group began fighting to save St. Luke’s Hospital, CPMC yanked its money.

Nato Green, a CNA representative, told me that his union sees the proposed CPMC project as “bad for workers, bad for the neighborhoods, and bad for public health.”

Eileen Prendiville, a CNA rank and file member who works at a CPMC facility in San Francisco, echoed Green. She told me that SEIU-UHW’s contractual support for Sutter’s proposed facility “does not advance health care equity and is not in the best interest of patients.” She said nurses strongly oppose the scaling down of St. Luke’s, and felt that “SEIU-UHW got nothing for its members in exchange for agreeing to support Sutter’s project.”

Prendiville, a nurse for thirty years, also suggested “NUHW would never have agreed to support this project against the community.” I called NUHW Vice President John Borsos to confirm this, and he told me “there is no way NUHW would have made such a deal with Sutter. We always felt it important to work with the community regarding this project.”

SEIU’s Community Disengagement

According to sources who have attended recent hearings on the proposed CPMC project, SEIU-UHW has few if any people present. The union’s disengagement from San Francisco’s health care advocates helps explain why it would back a project without requiring the written protections for citywide healthcare access and equity that community groups and activists deem essential.

SEIU-UHW’s reliance on contract negotiators outside the local community, and often from other states, is also part of the problem. These representatives have no relationships with the activists or groups fighting to save St. Luke’s or to win a Community Benefits Agreement, and likely won’t be around to deal with the backlash.

SEIU-UHW has already alienated many San Francisco progressives, with nearly all local progressive elected officials siding with NUHW in their dispute. SEIU’s attempted pullout of funds from the San Francisco Labor Council, its calling UNITE HERE Local 2 President Mike Casey a “liar,” and its threats to California Democratic Party chief John Burton left UHW politically isolated prior to its Sutter deal; its unqualified backing of the new CPMC project now estranges UHW from health care and community-based nonprofit groups.

To be clear, the San Francisco Building Trades also support Sutter’s project. But the Building Trades supports virtually every construction project proposed in San Francisco, and – unlike SEIU-UHW – does not claim protecting patient care and health equity as part of its mission.

The citywide Coalition for Health Planning – San Francisco and the GNC are continuing their efforts to increase public awareness of Sutter’s plans. SEIU-UHW had a great opportunity to secure allies by joining this broad coalition, but instead chose to align with Sutter Health, which continues to hand out flyers to new employees titled “Joining a Union Does Not Guarantee Pay Raises.”

Note: The Tenderloin Housing Clinic, publisher of Beyond Chron, is among the many groups in the GNC.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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