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The Duke Hospital is facing labor troubles again; this time in court. Although the facts are not yet clear, Duke Hospital's history with unionization gives concern.

Claiming that she was fired for trying to organize unionization efforts, former nurse Constance Donahue filed suit earlier this week against the University, the Health System and several individual administrators. Donahue was no stranger to the effort and had met with current Hospital CEO Dr. William Fulkerson and other managers in the months prior to her termination. Efforts to join the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 465, failed two years ago, but Donahue's suit claims recent benefit reductions have rekindled the nurses' movement. When she got involved, her statement argues, officials used an 11-minute break--during which a patient was left in the care of three others and suffered no harm as a result of Donahue's absence--as an opportunity to silence a pro-union advocate.

There's a lot left unanswered as the suit gets underway, including whether Donahue's absence was acceptable, who was involved in the firing decision and whether officials altered a rulebook to justify Donahue's termination. And if everything Donahue claims turns out to be true, Hospital officials must have been very absent-minded to think they could get away with firing her. But in light of the Hospital's attempts to alter the outcome of the October 2000 union vote, officials have some explaining to do.

In the months leading up to that vote, the National Labor Relations Board split on several allegations that the Hospital was engaging in unfair labor practices. The board sided with the Hospital officials on charges that the timing of a benefit increase was just coincidence, not an attempt to placate nurses, as union organizers claimed. Administrators were found guilty, however, of trying to scare nurses into believing a union would force a reduction of benefits. The vote had to be postponed, an event that many nurses said led to its failure.

Considering the Hospital's spotty record, it is easy to jump to conclusions. Fulkerson and other administrators should be given the benefit of the doubt. If Donahue's allegations are correct, however, they would represent a terrible attempt to prevent union organization. While a union may or may not be the best idea for nurses, they nevertheless have the right to decide themselves whether to organize without intimidation from Duke.


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