Summa Health’s chief nursing officer is discouraging the health system’s nurses from a possible attempt to unionize.

In a memo sent Tuesday to registered nurses at Summa’s Akron City, Barberton, St. Thomas and Wadsworth Rittman hospital campuses and satellite emergency rooms, Lanie Ward, Summa senior vice president and chief nursing officer, explained the hospital system’s stance against unionizing.

The memo, titled “Rumor Control,” starts by Ward saying she has heard rumors that a “small group of Akron City nurses, primarily from the Emergency Department” have been communicating with a statewide nurse’s union, which represents some nurses at Cleveland Clinic Akron General.

“Although Summa recognizes the right of nurses to choose to be represented by a union, or to choose to not be represented by a union, we believe it is in the best interests of our nurses and our organization for our nurses to remain union free,” Ward said in her memo.

Summa spokesman Mike Bernstein confirmed the validity of the memo and reiterated Ward’s comments, adding that the hospital system wanted to provide nurses “as much information as possible to assist them in understanding what it means to them as individuals and also as part of a larger group.”

Summa has about 1,800 registered nurses who could be affected by a unionizing effort, Bernstein said.

Unit would welcome

David Liu, co-chair of the Ohio Nurses Association bargaining unit at Cleveland Clinic Akron General, said he has not been contacted by any Summa nurses regarding organizing a union, but he would welcome it.

“We would love to have them with us,” he said. “To us, it would be a good thing.”

Liu’s ONA unit earlier this month ratified a three-year contract with Akron General. The union represents about 840 people at the hospital.

Hundreds of unionized nurses at Akron General went on strike for 11 days in 2004 before the hospital and union agreed to a three-year contract following disputes over wages, pension and health-care benefits.

About 650 nurses belonged then to the Professional Staff Nurses Association. Nurses at the hospital had gone on strike twice before, in 1977 and 1983.

A call to the Ohio Nurses Association was not returned.

Attempts to contact Summa nurses also were not successful. Other Summa employees said they had heard rumors about the nurses wanting to unionize, but they did not know if something sparked Ward’s memo.

Allegations in March

In March, nine Summa ER nurses told the Beacon Journal they believed some of the new ER physicians put patients’ lives in danger. Summa and the emergency medicine doctor group disputed the nurses’ allegations, saying the physicians were qualified and competent.

In her memo, Ward acknowledged turmoil earlier this year with the abrupt switch of the emergency department physicians after negotiations failed and the subsequent fallout, including the suspension of Summa’s ability to train ER resident physicians, effective July 1, and probation of the hospital system by a national accreditation group.

“I understand that our organization, and in particular our nurses, have faced many challenges recently,” she said. “However, I believe we have all worked together to successfully meet those challenges and will continue to do so in the future. It is critical that we be able to effectively work together to address those issues without the intervention of a union.”

Ward said a union would seek to speak for nurses as a group while attempting to prevent managers from communicating directly with nurses.

“That situation makes it very difficult to promptly and effectively address many operational issues,” she said.

Ward said “many promises are made, such as better pay, better benefits, and better working conditions. However, a union cannot guarantee that it will be able to obtain any of those things...pay, benefits and working conditions can remain unchanged, increase, or even decrease.”

Strike weapon

Ward said sometimes a union’s only weapon in negotiations is to threaten or call a strike. “Patient care is disrupted, relationships between employees are often harmed, and striking employees not only lose pay and benefits, but they also risk being permanently replaced,” she said. “Strikes are generally very harmful to both the employees and the organization.”

Ward warned nurses to read any union card before signing it.

Some representatives may ask an employee to sign an authorization card to obtain an election when it could mean the nurse is agreeing to be represented.

Business writer Jim Mackinnon contributed to this story. Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her @blinfisherABJ  on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty