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Novant says its 'non-union' policy messaging to NHRMC staff is not 'anti-union'

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Over the last month, employees of New Hanover Regional Medical Center have been receiving messaging about new policies under Novant, which finalized its purchase of the hospital from the county early last year. That includes a statement on Novant's 'non-union' policy.

Novant Health officially took over operations of NHRMC in early February of 2021 but, more recently, employees have been receiving notices about Novant's policy on unions which states "Novant is a non-union organization." WHQR received several copies of the document, which appeared identical, from anonymous sources.

Asked if the document was authentic, a Novant Health spokesperson responded, "Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center has adopted this, as well as many other policies, as part of our integration into Novant Health. We will continue policy integration and communication through the end of the year."

It's not clear exactly when Novant began distributing this particular
policy, although all copies received by WHQR appeared to have been updated in January of this year (e.g. they are marked "Last Revised/Reviewed Effective Date: Jan22."). According to a Novant Health spokesperson, "We have been communicating policy changes for months. This particular one is part of several that were communicated in June and many that have been communicated this year."

The policy also states that Novant "believes the interests of our team members, patients, communities, and the organization are best served when we communicate directly with team members rather than through a third party [i.e. unions]."

While the policy states Novant is "not anti-union, but rather pro-team member" it also notes the desire to avoid "burdensome union costs, complicated rules, and disruptive work stoppages."

The policy also notes, perhaps redundantly, that Novant is "pro-Novant Health."

Novant Health did not respond directly when asked if it was concerned about unionization at NHRMC.

It's worth noting that, whatever issues may have existed prior to Novant's ownership of NHRMC, unionization simply wasn't on the table as a county-owned hospital.

Owned by New Hanover County, NHRMC was considered a governmental entity, meaning it was, under North Carolina, covered by public records and open meetings law, but also prohibited from engaging in collective bargaining or entering into union contracts. Congress has repeatedly taken up the issue of states like North Carolina banning public employees from collective bargaining — but those efforts have routinely fallen short. For example, the House of Representatives passed bills in 2007 and 2010, but both died in the Senate.

Healthcare worker unionization during the pandemic

It's no secret that NHRMC’s staff has been under enormous pressure since the onset of the pandemic. Under the best of circumstances, working in a hospital is tough, though many find it rewarding. But the conditions in hospitals around the country — and around the globe— have been strained considerably for over two years now: staff shortages mean even tougher shifts and the pay disparities between existing staff and traveling nurses, who can make several times the local rate, can provoke resentment and erode morale further.

In some cases, that has pushed staff towards unionization, a trend that started early last year and has continued. In April, nearly 5,000 nurses in Palo Alto went on strike (after over 90% of the nurses in the union approved the move). The same month, hundreds of nurses at Howard University Hospital prepared to launch a one-day strike after eight months of negotiations; the nurses, members of the D.C. Nurses Association, reached a contract agreement with the hospital the following month.

Below: Full statement from Novant and the front page of Novant's 'Non-Union Statement'

Novant Health is committed to providing a safe, satisfying, and inclusive work environment for all team members with a focus on safety and well-being. We encourage open and direct communication between team members and leaders, which is supported by policies and other communication channels that we have established to ensure any and all complaints, concerns, suggestions, and ideas can be raised. We strongly believe that the continued growth and success of our organization can be best assured by avoiding the disruption, division and uncertainty brought by communicating through a third party. This belief is not anti-union, but rather pro-team member, pro-patient, and pro-Novant Health.

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Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.