Indiana University Health Nurse Who Wanted to Unionize Fired—Then Un-Fired

Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

Nurse Lacie Little worked for Indiana University Health for seven years. Three days after she tried to persuade other nurses to unionize, IU Health fired her. (Steve Baker / Flickr)

Lac­ie Lit­tle won back last week every­thing Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Health Inc. took from her — except her job. Her beloved nurs­ing job.

She got back wages and a for­mal pub­lic state­ment by the hos­pi­tal cor­po­ra­tion say­ing that it removed the fir­ing from her work record. So she’s un-fired.

But she’s not rehired. The hos­pi­tal behe­moth refused to con­sid­er restor­ing Lac­ie to her nurs­ing job for sev­en years, long enough, it hopes, to pre­vent her from help­ing form a union there. Despite every­thing that has hap­pened to her, Lac­ie hasn’t giv­en up that goal. Now, she’s work­ing for my union, the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers (USW), try­ing to orga­nize nurses.

Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty (IU) Health fired Lac­ie on March 30, three days after she began try­ing to per­suade her fel­low nurs­es to union­ize. Lac­ie want­ed her co-work­ers to join togeth­er to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain with IU Health for the same rea­son many nurs­es want to nego­ti­ate with their hos­pi­tals. They love their pro­fes­sion; they’re devot­ed to their patients, and they want to help their hos­pi­tals be the best that they can be.

IU Health Inc. believed it knew what was best for the bot­tom line of the hos­pi­tal sys­tem — and that wasn’t a nurs­es union. So like many employ­ers, it took action to squash the nascent effort by employ­ees to gain a voice at work by orga­niz­ing. Fir­ing work­ers for try­ing to form a union is ille­gal. But insti­tu­tions — even ones sup­pos­ed­ly ded­i­cat­ed to restor­ing health or to Catholic the­ol­o­gy — do it all the time any­way because the penal­ties are so very pal­try and the fear instilled is so very profound. 

Cor­po­ra­tions know they can stall an orga­niz­ing cam­paign with just the threat of fir­ing. Duquesne Uni­ver­si­ty in Pitts­burgh recent­ly used this tac­tic in a star­tling way. It includ­ed in a plead­ing to the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) a threat to refuse to rehire for future semes­ters two adjunct pro­fes­sors who had tes­ti­fied at an NLRB hear­ing about efforts to orga­nize at Duquesne, which holds itself out as a reli­gious insti­tu­tion. One of the adjuncts described Duquesne’s writ­ten threat as bone chilling.

Lac­ie felt both unnerved and betrayed when the hos­pi­tal cor­po­ra­tion fired her. Her part­ner was five months preg­nant with their sec­ond child. She had respon­si­bil­i­ties, and the ter­mi­na­tion left her unsure how she would ful­fill them. She could not believe the hos­pi­tal sys­tem she so loved had done this to her.

The doc­tors and nurs­es and staff at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Health endeared them­selves to Lac­ie when her grand­fa­ther, Robert Lit­tle, was hos­pi­tal­ized at Methodist, an IU insti­tu­tion, just after she grad­u­at­ed from high school. He was admit­ted to the car­dio­vas­cu­lar crit­i­cal care unit, where Lac­ie would lat­er work.

Robert Lit­tle was hav­ing trou­ble breath­ing. To dis­tract him, the nurs­es joked with him. They held his gar­gan­tu­an hands. The doc­tor took the time to find out about Robert Lit­tle as a per­son. The physi­cian learned that Robert Lit­tle was a union brick­lay­er who had worked hard all his life and who con­tin­ued chop­ping wood as he fell increas­ing­ly ill in his 70s. Robert Lit­tle would not be hap­py bedrid­den, tube invad­ed, machine dependent. 

At that time, Lacie’s moth­er was a nurse at IU Health. She had worked in its bone mar­row trans­plant unit in the very ear­ly days when many patients did not sur­vive. Lac­ie says her moth­er taught her an impor­tant les­son about that:

She told me that tak­ing care of some­one in their last days and hours of life is an hon­or. You ush­er them out. And you can make it a great expe­ri­ence or an awful expe­ri­ence. You can tru­ly take care of the patient and the fam­i­ly. I feel Methodist real­ly did that for my fam­i­ly, took the time to get to know my grand­fa­ther and explain things to us. They were able to let him die with dig­ni­ty. He was clean and warm and not in pain and had his fam­i­ly around him. Every­one has to die. It might as well be in a good way.”

Lac­ie start­ed work at IU Health when she was just 19 years old. She earned bachelor’s degrees in psy­chol­o­gy and biol­o­gy. Then, while work­ing as a sec­re­tary for the hos­pi­tal sys­tem, she returned to col­lege get her nurs­ing degree. She says she learned: Nurs­ing is car­ing for peo­ple. Great nurs­es care for their patients. They don’t just take care of them.”

In 2009, she launched her nurs­ing career in the car­dio­vas­cu­lar crit­i­cal care unit where her grand­fa­ther had died. Every day, she chal­lenged her­self to care for her patients like they were her grandfather.

The sto­ries she tells show that she rev­eled in accom­plish­ing that. She talks about car­ing for an old­er farmer who had been injured in a trac­tor acci­dent. At one point as he began to get bet­ter, he kept motion­ing toward his face. Still con­nect­ed to a breath­ing tube, he could not talk. She knew he was try­ing to ask for a shave. Lac­ie recounts:

I got some hot water and put some wash cloths in there. I sat him in a reclin­ing chair and leaned him back and said, here we are at the bar­ber shop’ and gave him a real­ly good shave. He kept touch­ing his face and giv­ing me thumbs up. The shave wasn’t nec­es­sary to get him bet­ter, but we had fixed all of the acute things, and this was impor­tant for help­ing him feel bet­ter. We have to do some things to help them feel good mentally.”

When Lac­ie began in nurs­ing, the hos­pi­tal sys­tem enabled nurs­es to help patients feel bet­ter. But that changed.

In the fall of 2013, the hos­pi­tal cor­po­ra­tion laid off 800 work­ers, includ­ing Lacie’s moth­er, who had worked there 25 years. At about the same time, IU Health insti­tut­ed a man­age­ment method described as going lean.” What that meant to Lac­ie was that the hos­pi­tal sys­tem had the best doc­tors and nurs­es and staff but was set­ting them up to fail at meet­ing goals like treat­ing their patients like their grandfathers.

They want­ed us to do more with less. And they would say that. Every­thing was about cost, cost, cost. But we care about patients over prof­its,” she said. It meant there was rarely time to give a farmer a shave.

Lac­ie says nurs­es began talk­ing about being in moral dis­tress, Peo­ple were leav­ing the hos­pi­tal and going home and cry­ing because they felt they did not take good care of their patients.” They did all the basics. They gave patients all of the med­ica­tions but had no time to talk to them like they were human beings. If you are not spo­ken to, you feel like a spec­i­men, not a per­son,” Lac­ie explains. Feel­ing like a spec­i­men does not help heal.

That’s when the union talk start­ed. Because her father and grand­fa­ther were union men, Lac­ie said fam­i­ly expe­ri­ence had taught her that unions could put work­ers in a posi­tion to get CEOs to lis­ten. I knew unions were a way to stack up enough peo­ple so they were on a lev­el play­ing field with the CEO,” she said. 

Ear­li­er this year, the IU nurs­es chose the USW to help them orga­nize and began hold­ing infor­ma­tion­al meet­ings, three a day, twice a week. Lots of nurs­es attend­ed. They dis­cussed prob­lems at work and how orga­niz­ing could be a solu­tion. Peo­ple were encour­aged because they want­ed to do some­thing, not just talk about it,” Lac­ie says.

In March, Lac­ie and sev­er­al oth­er nurs­es began ask­ing co-work­ers if they were will­ing to sign a card peti­tion­ing for an elec­tion that would deter­mine whether they could form a union.

Lac­ie was care­ful to do this only while she was on lunch and oth­er breaks. She cau­tioned co-work­ers not to sign unless they too were on a break. She chat­ted with on-duty nurs­es but did not take their sig­na­tures. Even so, on her third day of doing this, IU Health Inc. offi­cials accused her of accept­ing sig­na­tures from nurs­es who were on duty.

The hos­pi­tal cor­po­ra­tion sus­pend­ed her, then fired her just days lat­er. I was dumb­found­ed,” she says, I felt betrayed because I had giv­en my loy­al­ty to IU Health.” She had worked there a decade.

Not long after the hos­pi­tal sys­tem ter­mi­nat­ed Lac­ie, the state Health Depart­ment issued a report say­ing the hos­pi­tal was short staffed and that it adverse­ly affect­ed patient care.

The USW hired Lac­ie imme­di­ate­ly after the fir­ing, but the ter­mi­na­tion imper­iled renew­al of her nurs­ing license. She knew if she fought the hos­pi­tal cor­po­ra­tion through the NLRB process and the courts, she would win. But that could take years. And she’d be unable to work as a nurse in the meantime.

So she took the set­tle­ment deal. It requires IU Health Inc. to post notices at its hos­pi­tals say­ing that it had rescind­ed Lacie’s fir­ing and dis­ci­pline against her and that fed­er­al law for­bids the hos­pi­tal cor­po­ra­tion from threat­en­ing, inter­ro­gat­ing, sur­veilling, dis­ci­plin­ing, sus­pend­ing or fir­ing any­one for attempt­ing to form a union. 

Lacie’s fir­ing steeled the com­mit­ment of some, who start­ed a Face­book meme say­ing, I’ve got a Lit­tle fight in me.” But for many oth­ers, the fir­ing had the effect the hos­pi­tal cor­po­ra­tion intend­ed. Nurs­es were fear­ful, and turnout at union meet­ings declined.

Stud­ies show the num­ber of ille­gal fir­ings of union activists increas­ing and the num­ber of union mem­bers in the Unit­ed States dwin­dling. Work­ers like Lac­ie need leg­is­la­tion to stop it. This time last year U.S. Rep. Kei­th Elli­son (D‑Minn.) intro­duced the Employ­ee Empow­er­ment Act, which would do just that. It could be called Lacie’s Law. But that wouldn’t be fair to the thou­sands of oth­er work­ers who suf­fered as a result of the same ille­gal cor­po­rate union-bust­ing practice.

Lac­ie insist­ed on a pro­vi­sion in the agree­ment allow­ing her to apply to return to IU Health in sev­en years because, she said, I still love the IU Health nurs­es and doc­tors and staff.”

Leo Ger­ard is inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union min­er; Ger­ard start­ed work­ing at a nick­el smelter in Sud­bury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union’s ranks to be appoint­ed the sev­enth inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent Feb. 28, 2001. For more infor­ma­tion about Ger­ard, vis­it usw​.org.
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