It can be easy to spot Operating Engineers 324 members in almost any corner of Michigan, on any day and at any time. The eye can’t help but gravitate to the large cranes, heavy dozers or road pavers rebuilding Michigan. Or maybe it’s the Stationary Engineers running through schools, museums and government buildings, making repairs and keeping the climate controlled. But in Jackson, Michigan, hundreds of proud OE324 members go to work at one site every day and there’s not a crane or a boiler in sight.
They are the staff of Henry Ford Allegiance Health, a hospital where the member you meet isn’t working on the outside, but in the kitchens, operating rooms and hallways. For decades, this facility has been represented by the Operating Engineers – first as Local 547 and since 2009, Local 324. They number almost 500 and represent several job classifications: CNAs/Certified Nursing Assistants, Housekeeping, CSP/Central Sterilization Processing, Dietary, Transport, Rehab Techs, Patient Support Assistants and Laundry workers.
In the era of “Right-To-Work,” this bargaining unit has remained strong, a fact that Representatives, management and workers alike credit to the leadership of their Union Stewards. Seemingly every group is led by a collection of attentive stewards who are dedicated to helping their coworkers and patients alike and keeping the union active.
One such Steward is Danielle Ammon. She works as a patient transport. “We take patients anywhere they need to go all over the hospital. Wheelchair, stretcher, bed. Anywhere you’re going, we’re taking you.” Danielle has been at the hospital for five years and is proud of the work she and her coworkers do.
“The best part of my day is being with my coworkers and patients. Taking the grumpiest or most scared patient and making their day better. Helping them.”
That caring extends to her coworkers, and the good she can do for them as well. “Since going into negotiations this year, I got to see how things would be a lot different without having a union. I’ve worked non-union, and I know how much more success we can have when we have our voices heard.”
“I feel like the best part in our negotiations were a lot of raises for workers and families. If you look at the non-union groups, we have the ability to make things so much better. I try to work hard and be someone people can come to as a Steward.”
It’s a feeling shared by her fellow Steward and Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Keisha Kubish. CNA’s have a variety of responsibilities around the hospital. “We assist patients in doing their daily living activities,” Keisha explains. “People need help with the bathroom, brushing their teeth, having their vitals taken, walking with them in the hallway if they are able.” “Sometimes, the best thing I can do is sit and be a listening ear for patients, who are going through a trying time. Especially if family isn’t there. It’s OK to be taken care of sometimes. It can be hard – they are usually people who do the caretaking, so it can be hard for them to feel ok about being taken care of.” That sense of caretaking extends to her coworkers, which is why she tries to educate them on the value of union membership. “When you’re a non-union worker, your just an at-will employee. Being in a union holds management accountable.” She continues, “Everytime we renew our contract, we keep things that they want to take away. I explain that since our merger our CNAs – actually any of our union departments – make more than non-union departments across the health system.”
“I like the union here,” shares Virginia Reasoner, who works in housekeeping. “Because of the union, we get weekends off, holidays, they get you your scrubs, and,” she smiles, “raises of course. They’re here to back you up if an issue arises.” Reasoner, who has been at the hospital 12 years, knows what a fast-paced environment it is, and has her own way of stress management. “I keep my smile on and keep on going. I stay focused and stay positive.”
One of the most rewarding results of their affiliation has been the establishment of a Central Sterilizing Processing training program. The CSPs are responsible for the cleaning and sterilization of medical tools and equipment, essential to the health of patients.
Steward Kathryn Blackburn has been a CSP for a few months, after she moved over from housekeeping. She explains “It’s was hard to find CSP staff, since there’s no local program for it. We had a lot of contractors. It really benefits the hospital and staff to have in-house people to do it.”
In negotiations, the hospital and OE324 were able to partner and develop a program that allows for hospital staff to train for the role. Candidates have to take and score well on the Michigan WorkKeys test (administered through Michigan Works), then complete three separate interviews and a job shadowing before acceptance into the program. Kathryn explains, “Once you’re in the program, you have to become efficient in all steps and stages. Lots of Personal Protective Equipment, and there’s textbook work as well.” It concludes with a state test. “Decontamination is essential importance, because a small mistake can have catastrophic results.” Since the program started 3 years ago, it has yielded impressive results, including nine current employees queued for the training, three at a time. “It’s a path to higher wages, to advancement and it’s because we have 324.” “Being a Union Steward has been hard sometimes but is so rewarding. I love being the resource for people – they know they can come to me with questions, and I will do everything I can to help them. I always want what’s best for the members.”
Steward and Nutrition Services employee Susan Good agrees. Susan came to the hospital when she was 50 – 21 years ago. She had been a cook previously, but previous jobs had closed or left the city altogether. Susan started as general kitchen worker, part time, before moving to nights for several years, working from 11pm to 7:30 am. ”When I came, I had never been in a union, no one in my family had ever been in a union,” said Susan. That first year, she decided to go to a union meeting. “I figured, if they’re gonna take my money, I better find out what they do for me.”
At the time there was no Steward in Nutrition Services. Her Business Rep suggested she take on the role “How could I possibly be a Steward? I just got here!” With some guidance, she did, and is understandably pleased with how it’s gone “We’ve become pretty good 324 members, I think.” Susan,now 71 and going strong, beams over what they have been able to accomplish. “One of the biggest values has been the job protection, and members were all quite happy with our last contract.” She points to the weekend premium and shift raise they were able to get when talking to new employees. “The biggest thing I share with new employees are the raises and the job protections. Everybody knows someone somewhere who was fired unfairly, but we have protections. The fact we can’t just be drug in and fired, these are the two biggest things I tell people.”
Still, it is what she is able to accomplish in her role that pleases her most. “I like cooking for the patients. I like feeling like we’re taking good care of them.”
“I like helping people, and I like knowing we’re doing something for them.”