After long fight, doctors may unionize at Stroger Hospital

Twenty-five years after they began an organizing campaign, doctors at the county's health system finally are allowed to form a union at its flagship hospital.

Directors at the Cook County Health & Hospitals System Board voted yesterday to recognize about two-thirds of more than 300 attending physicians at J.H. Stroger Jr. Hospital for collective bargaining.

The decision will fortify the ranks of the Service Employees International Union, one of the most powerful unions in the country, and lend the health system's new chief executive credibility with the county's unions. An alliance with organized labor may help Bill Foley, appointed by the board in May to run the county's hospitals, as he tries to streamline the financially beleaguered system's operations, potentially with more layoffs.

A spokesman at the health system did not immediately respond to e-mail and voice messages about the decision, but union officials paint it as a mutual understanding between groups that, as recently as last month, seemed diametrically opposed. As part of the agreement, the union agreed not to strike during future contract negotiations and to allow hospital managers to consolidate departments and reassign doctors without its approval.

"They were concerned that this would impact their ability to reform the system," Emilie Junge, regional coordinator at the Doctors Council, says of the health system's officials. "We want to partner with them. We're not a hindrance."

The Doctors Council is part of the SEIU, heavily courted during last year's Democratic presidential primaries and now an influential voice in labor and health-care issues in Washington. The union already represents about 200 doctors at other facilities in the health system, including Oak Forest Hospital, Provident Hospital and the county's ambulatory and community-health network.

The board's decision allows physicians at Stroger to join unionized colleagues at the other hospitals, and it comes a month after directors refused to allow the move.

In late July, health-system board members voted against a union at Stroger. They argued that the doctors are supervisors — Stroger's staff includes more than 400 medical residents and fellows — and therefore ineligible to collectively bargain with hospital management.

Junge says that, seeing opposition from the county board, the union lobbied county commissioners to support the union.

"I think that when it became clear that there was support at the county commission for the doctors," Junge says, "the hospital board started to consider it seriously."

Yesterday's about-face did not approve all doctors for union membership. Junge says the union conceded that some doctors do, indeed, have managerial roles. Officials are still determining the list of eligible doctors, which should be ready in a couple of days, she says.

Afterward, Junge says, the Illinois Labor Relations Board, which oversees public-sector union issues in the state, must approve the Doctors Council as the Stroger physicians' representative.

The start of contract negotiations between the doctors and the health system, which Junge says she expects within a couple of months, will represent the culmination of a decades-long battle for recognition.

Peter Orris, former president of the medical staff at Stroger and now a union leader at the Doctors Council, says he remembers when doctors filed their first petition for collective bargaining on April 10, 1985.

"The county fought it tooth and nail," Orris says. "The main obstacle was the belief ... that providing this collective voice for the doctors was allowing them too much power in this process."

Orris says the doctors' political power was limited because they refused to strike. Eventually, though, officials granted doctors at other county hospitals permission to unionize. Orris says that unions at Oak Forest and Provident helped pave the way for recognition of a Stroger union.

"Half of the doctors are already in the union, and have contracts, and have really demonstrated over the last year that this is, in fact, consistent with the efficient functioning of the hospitals," he says. "Time changes things."

Staff Writer Adrian G. Uribarri can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 12, or adrian at chitowndailynews dot org.