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The Journal Gazette

Friday, June 16, 2017 1:00 am

Healthy dose of employee empowerment is Rx for Lutheran

Randy Schmidt

Randy Schmidt is vice chairman of the Allen County United Auto Workers Community Action Program.

For some time now, the quality of the administration of the Lutheran Hospital Network by the for-profit Tennessee Community Health Systems corporation has been under public scrutiny. Every self-proclaimed expert from anti-labor-rights Fort Wayne City Councilman John Crawford, to corporate leadership consultant Jerry Acuff, to Zig Ziglar pitchman Krish Dhanam has been quoted in the local media on how to fix a broken medical delivery system's problems.

Now, after a failed buyout attempt by a rival local group of wealthy investors, CHS has responded by reshuffling the deck of Lutheran's top managers because, after all, that ought to fix the problems. Right?

When presented with a quality issue problem, it is always best to make sure you are asking the right questions before supplying answers. For the sake of brevity, I will pass over the significant issue of whether for-profit corporations should be running our hospitals to begin with. We live in a political world where the profit motive outweighs all others, and woe to those who find other human values superior.

So if we must live or die in a world where corporate prosperity trumps quality health care concerns, is there any other course to pursue to assure we are getting the best medical care possible from CHS? Actually, yes, there is.

In union shops, employees bargain for the right to be involved in the decision-making process. They do so because both their jobs and their self worth depend on it. When I was employed by General Motors, I was an hourly employee working in the Quality Support Department. I didn't get there by accident. My position was negotiated by the United Auto Workers to counter those in management preoccupied with costs and devotion to the bottom line.

And when I and my fellow workers argued for investing company funds in quality equipment and adherence to daily quality practices, we had no fear of management retaliation because our union representatives were there to protect our right to disagree with company priorities.

We have heard that CHS has not been keeping up with equipment maintenance and upgrades, that employee staffing levels are below normal, and that those employees currently on staff are overworked and demoralized. While there is no evidence that these problems have led to patient care issues yet, this is a scenario just waiting to unfold.

Remember the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster? Congress and NASA demanded a top-to-bottom assessment of what went wrong. The findings were damning. Despite repeated warnings by lower-level employees throughout the system, top management ordered their rocket be launched anyway.

Why did they do this? Because the Reagan administration demanded they meet their schedule and cost projections or face shuttle program budget cutbacks. The disaster investigation team blamed management for not following the advice of their employees. The employees were concerned with the safety of their shuttle. The managers were concerned with the bottom line.

When Dr. Crawford went looking for allies in his bid to address the problems at Lutheran, he visited the local non-profit Workers Project Incorporated. I was a guest at that meeting. Workers Project Incorporated does good works in the community, arguing for more economic equality and advocating for the poor and the underemployed. But if the good doctor were genuinely concerned about the working conditions in the Lutheran Hospital Network, he would have approached organized labor and the AFL-CIO.

One of the largest local unions in the nation is UAW Local 6000 in Michigan. We represent nurses, teachers, doctors, probation officers, social workers and secretaries. And there are plenty of other unions that would be happy to represent the medical workforce of CHS.

We stand ready to bring safety, quality and dignity to their employees. Just give organized labor a call. And we will help solve the problems facing a major Fort Wayne health care provider. Go on – start asking the right questions, and you will find actual employee empowerment is the answer.