Starkman: Beaumont Nurse Anesthetists at Royal Oak, Troy and Grosse Pointe Vote Overwhelmingly to Unionize

March 29, 2021, 8:30 PM

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

By Eric Starkman

Sally Gribben (Photo: Facebook)

Sally Gribben, the Beaumont nurse anesthetist who spearheaded a union drive among her colleagues at Royal Oak, Troy and Grosse Pointe Hospitals, has secured her place as the Crystal Lee Sutton of U.S. healthcare.

Sutton, who inspired the Academy Award-winning movie “Norma Rae," was the textile worker who was fired for leading a union drive at a North Carolina factory. Like Sutton, Gribben was recently was publicly removed from her job in a move that her colleagues believe was also in retaliation for leading the Beaumont nurse anesthetist union drive.

They Stood Their Ground

The Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) working at Beaumont’s so-called northern hospitals were not intimidated. Nearly 90 percent of them voted to be represented by the Southeastern Michigan CRNAs & Associates (SEMCA) of which Gribben is president.

Sally Field in an iconic scene from "Norma Rae" in 1979 (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

The Beaumont CRNAs were employees of Beaumont until January, when COO Carolyn Wilson pawned them off to NorthStar Anesthesia, the outsourcing firm that took over the hospital network’s anesthesia functions. Beaumont CRNAs were angered that Wilson never consulted with them about the move and filed to form a union on the first business day of 2021.

Gribben’s name appears on all the union organizing documentation.

NorthStar, acting at the behest of Beaumont’s management, put Gribben on paid administrative leave two weeks ago, ostensibly for accessing the medical records of a patient who received a pain medication overdose and landed in the ICU for several days. The incident, along with a patient who died from intubation complications while undergoing a routine colonoscopy, happened within three weeks of NorthStar taking over at Beaumont.

Beaumont COO Carolyn Wilson

Gribben’s colleagues say she had good reason to access the medical records because she was initially asked to provide backup assistance in the area of the hospital where the overdose incident occurred about two months ago.

It’s not clear why Gribben would be under investigation now, leading to speculation it’s possibly a retaliatory measure. Multiple sources say that Beaumont’s management, along with board chairman John Lewis, are livid that news of the colonoscopy patient’s death and the pain overdose incident leaked and want the sources identified, and if possible, prosecuted.

Beaumont is vehemently anti-union. The company spent nearly $2 million on union busting firms to derail a union drive by nurses at Beaumont’s flagship Royal Oak hospitals. The union busting effort was so successful the Michigan Nurses Association vowed they’d never again attempt to “officially” organize Beaumont workers.

It’s not immediately clear if Gribben could continue to represent Beaumont CRNAs if she is fired.

An email response from Beaumont spokesman Mark Geary said he was out of the office and referred questions to Bob Ortlieb, who ignored a request for comment.

NorthStar Disappointed

Adam Spiegel

Within hours of the union vote being tabulated, NorthStar CEO Adam Spiegel reached out to the Beaumont CRNAs.

“While we would have preferred a different result and had hoped the CRNAs would have given us the chance to prove ourselves as an employer, we will move forward with our CRNA colleagues and bargain in good faith with SEMCA on a collective bargaining agreement,” Spiegel said in a communique.

Beaumont’s CRNAs say the union certification wasn’t intended as a rebuke of NorthStar, but rather a move to ensure “a seat at the table” on future decisions that impact them and their profession. The CRNAs would have been members of the Royal Oak nurses’ union had that effort been successful, and many of them supported the drive.

NorthStar claims it enjoys good relations with its employees. Company spokeswoman Elizabeth Squires said a survey last year revealed that 84 percent of NorthStar employees were “satisfied” with their jobs and 76 percent would recommend the company to friends and family “as a great place to work.”

(Graphic: Southeast Michigan CRNAs & Associates)

Beaumont’s CRNAs pulled off their union drive with absolutely no support from local political leaders including Andy Levin, whose district includes Beaumont’s flagship hospital.

Levin, who was reportedly under consideration for Secretary of Labor in the Biden Administration, spearheaded 50 Democratic congresspeople, including Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell, to support Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama seeking to organize. The trio recently visited Redford Township to show support for striking Teamsters workers at a 7 Up warehouse.

No union representatives have expressed public support for the CRNAs organizing drive.

So much for all the faux appreciation for hospital workers being “heroes” in the midst of a pandemic.

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

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