National Labor Relations Board investigators allege that the hospital's management has threatened to fire pro-union employees and drafted overly broad rules designed to prevent employees from promoting the union in the workplace, or from posting pro-union literature on company bulletin boards.
The NLRB also is looking into whether hospital security guards harassed employees who had met in a hospital parking lot to discuss union matters.
Lawyers for St. Joseph's denied the allegations in a written response.
The NLRB investigation was triggered by complaints from the Teamsters union, which has been trying to win over the hospital's roughly 2,700 full-time employees (excluding doctors) since January.
The Teamsters lodged its first grievance in late February, alleging that the hospital was preventing pro-union employees from posting materials on staff bulletin boards. The union also complained that managers were threatening to fire employees who supported the union.
In September, the union filed a follow-up complaint after St. Joseph's fired nurse Pat Sunderling just days after she visited the hospital on her day off, accompanied by a Teamsters representative.
A separate complaint was filed by another former St. Joseph's nurse who was let go by the hospital in July, reportedly for performing duties for which she was unqualified.
St. Joseph's officials would not comment on Sunderling's termination, saying doing so would violate confidentiality policies. Sunderling said her firing resulted directly from her union-organizing activities.
Sunderling said that the hospital's no-solicitation rule was selectively enforced. Adopted in August 1996 following a failed organizing drive by a California nurses' union at the hospital, the policy states that "employees are not permitted . . . to engage in solicitation of, or distribution of, promotional literature. . . ."
Employees continued to engage in other forms of solicitation well after the policy was adopted and never were disciplined, Sunderling said.
"What I did was no worse than when someone goes in and tries to sell their daughter's Girl Scout cookies, which goes on all the time there," Sunderling said.
An NLRB spokesman said the case could go before an administrative law judge this summer, who will pass any findings on to the five-member National Labor Relations Board.
Meanwhile, NLRB officials have been pressuring both the union and the hospital to come to terms over the points listed in the complaint. So far, though, little headway has been made.
The use of bulletin boards for union business is a contentious issue. Steve Askeep, a Teamsters organizer, says St. Joseph's officials offered the union 10 bulletin boards on which to post materials. The Teamsters rejected the offer.
"It's ridiculous, because there's case law out there that says we're allowed to post on any general-purpose bulletin board," Askeep said.
The Teamsters' organizing effort appears to be having some effect, though.
The hospital laid off more than 200 employees in January, and the Teamsters' drive began soon after. Since then, the hospital has given nurses a $4-an-hour pay raise.
Sunderling believes the timing was not coincidental.
"They did that to try and deflate the drive," Sunderling says.
Still, she says, patient care--not money--was her main reason for joining the union effort, an opinion which has been voiced by others taking part in the union drive.
Pro-union nurses questioned for this story said the cutbacks have left them understaffed and underequipped. St. Joseph's officials acknowledged that, because of the managed-care revolution in health care, hospitals everywhere have been forced to do more with less.
Still, hospital officials maintain that patient care hasn't suffered.
"The challenge that we all have is to figure out how to deliver quality care with the challenges in the marketplace, and that means some new approaches," said St. Joseph's spokesperson Jane Wilson.