Starkman: Andy Levin Goes After Amazon's Union Busting in Alabama, But Silent About Beaumont

March 08, 2021, 6:56 PM

The columnist, a Los Angeles freelancer, is a former Detroit News business reporter who blogs at Starkman Approved.

By Eric Starkman

Rep. Andy Levin

Count Michigan Rep. Andy Levin among those who don’t believe that charity begins at home.

The Democratic congressman, a member of the House Labor and Education Committee, spearheaded a letter signed by 50 colleagues to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos expressing their support for Amazon workers in Alabama to organize a union with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Also, signing the letter were Michigan Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell.

Support for Amazon’s Alabama workers comes from the top, as President Biden recently tweeted his support for the Alabama union drive and defended workers’ rights to organize.

“You have attempted to coerce your employees out of exercising their voices with misleading text messages and anti-union propaganda and force in-person voting during a pandemic that has resulted in the deaths of nearly 500,000 Americans,” Levin thundered in his letter to Bezos.

Jeff Bezos

I’m all for ensuring workers’ rights to organize, but taking on Jeff Bezos is media grandstanding that potentially could have adverse consequences for the workers Levin and his congressional colleagues feign to want to protect. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let me point out Levin’s shameful hypocrisy.

Levin’s district includes Beaumont Royal Oak, a once nationally respected hospital where the quality of care has so imploded that one patient recently died undergoing a routine colonoscopy from anesthesia complications and another landed in the ICU after being given an overdose of pain medication. These incidents happened within three weeks of Beaumont outsourcing its anesthesia services to a controversial low-cost company called NorthStar Anesthesia.

Until January, Beaumont Royal Oak employed its own nurse anesthetists. But the hospital, without their input or consent, effectively pawned them off to NorthStar effective Jan. 1. The nurse anesthetists say patient safety has markedly declined since NorthStar took over and that’s driven them to organize their own union against formidable odds.

Climate of Fear

Beaumont Royal Oak’s nurses and nurse anesthetists last year tried to organize, but failed after the hospital spent nearly $2 million on union-busting activities, including using a firm that Donald Trump previously hired at his New Jersey casinos. Underscoring just how formidable a campaign Beaumont’s union busters waged, the Michigan Nurses Association vowed it would never again “officially” organize at Beaumont Royal Oak because of the hospital management’s “climate of fear.”

Not a peep out of supposed labor advocate Andy Levin objecting to Beaumont’s aggressive union-busting activities. NorthStar nurse anesthetists working at Beaumont Royal Oak have also been subjected to aggressive union-busting activities, including having representatives showing up uninvited at their lounges and helping themselves to food sent as a gift from colleagues.

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I reached out to Levin’s office a few weeks ago, asking if he was concerned about NorthStar’s efforts to intimidate nurse anesthetists working at Beaumont Royal Oak, Troy, and Grosse Pointe but never heard back.

Levin’s silence is especially notable given his proven influence with Beaumont CEO John Fox. Fox last year abandoned his plan to merge Beaumont into Chicago-based Advocate Aurora Health days after Levin went public announcing he’d move to block the controversial deal. Levin stopped short of calling for the resignations of Fox and his key deputies, a move advocated by many Beaumont doctors and the hospital’s biggest donors.

President Joe Biden in Portage, Mich.

President Biden has a very good in if he wanted to support the NorthStar anesthetists. Texas-based NorthStar is controlled by The Cranmere Group, a holding company whose previous CEO Jeffrey Zients resigned in December to co-head Biden’s transition team and is one of the president’s closest advisors. Levin was reportedly a contender to become Labor Secretary in the Biden administration, but the nomination went to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

Unionization is increasingly falling out of favor with U.S. workers, given the myriad instances of corruption and labor leadership mismanagement. The once mighty UAW has been haunted in recent times by a rash of corruption indictments involving top officials, including two former presidents. Health care provides a new frontier, as hospitals are using the guise of the pandemic to cut costs and place increased burdens on medical and other workers.

According to a recent Kaiser News report posted on NPR, about seven percent of health care and social services workers are unionized.  Of the approximately 1,500 petitions for union representation posted on the National Labor Relations Board website in 2020, 16 percent related to the health care field, up from 14 percent the previous year.

Supporting Beaumont’s nurse anesthetists could also benefit Levin’s other constituents. Studies show that unionized hospitals have better patient outcomes. Michigan Medicine, U of M’s teaching hospital, is unionized and ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 11th best hospital in the country.

Influential PAC

I'm skeptical that most Democrats are any more interested than Republicans in meaningfully supporting health care workers in their unionization efforts. The American Hospital Association is a major contributor to candidates from both parties. Last year the trade group and its subsidiaries spent more than $26 million on lobbying. Jim Skogsbergh, CEO of Advocate Aurora, the company that Fox wanted to merge Beaumont into, is chairman of the AHA’s political action committee.

The hospital industry is very incestuous, and critics allege it’s also corrupt and rife with conflicts and self-dealing.

Pretending to take on Amazon is a tantalizing national media opportunity for Democrats, given that CEO Bezos is among the richest people in the world. Tlaib and Dingell especially appreciated the limelight potential last fall.

Reps. Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib

The duo in September made national news accusing Amazon of summoning the police when they wanted to inspect alleged unsafe working conditions at Amazon’s Romulus warehouse. Tlaib and Dingell called on the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration to investigate, a request they knew wouldn’t be addressed given the Trump Administration’s aversion to regulation.

If Dingell and Tlaib were serious about protecting Amazon’s Romulus warehouse workers, they would have called on Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel to act, something New York Attorney General Letitia James has shown a willingness to do. Nessel has yet to express even an iota of public concern about Beaumont’s implosion, despite being warned it’s declining quality of care could become “another Flint.”

America’s political leaders are out of their depth taking on Jeff Bezos. He built Amazon on the backs of taxpayers, demanding lucrative incentives from clueless cities and states to build warehouses in exchange for promising to create low paying jobs. Studies show that some of the promised jobs never materialized, and even those that did are going to disappear.

Most Amazon warehouses will be almost entirely robotic within a few years. That’s why Bezos was at the forefront of advocating for a $15 minimum wage. Amazon is ahead of its competitors on using robots to staff its warehouses because in 2012 it bought the company that pioneered much of the technology.   

When politicians start telling corporations how to run their businesses, sometimes unintended consequences happen. In Long Beach, California, city council in January passed a $4 an hour hero pay increase mandate for essential grocery store workers. What did Kroger do? The company closed two of its supermarkets in the city.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Bezos actually welcomes the grandstanding of Levin and his Congressional colleagues. It allows the Democrats to preen that they are taking on the rich, when in fact they are providing a welcome distraction. If Amazon keeps its Alabama warehouse open, likely there will be mostly robots working there in the not-too-distant future. 

Meanwhile, Beaumont will still need nurse anesthetists, but Levin’s made clear he doesn’t care about critical workers within a stone’s throw of where he grew up.

Reach Eric Starkman at: Beaumont employees and vendors are encouraged to reach out, with confidentiality assured.

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