Invoking the name and spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday Monday, a crowd composed of two local social justice groups and union backers marched on the West Suburban Medical Center, decrying what they said was discrimination against both hospital housekeeping workers and poor patients.

A hospital spokesperson denied both charges Tuesday, saying that corporate parent Resurrection Health Care has provided millions in treatment for poor and indigent patients, and is committed to respecting the rights of its workers.

The marchers, 120 strong, gathered at a church at Austin and Superior, then marched one block to the corner of Austin and Erie, holding placards and chanting. There the throng listened to comments from several speakers including Oak Park Trustee Robert Milstein and trustee candidate Barbara Dolan.

Several people mentioned Oak Park’s Diversity Statement, including Milstein and Oak Park Coalition for Truth and Justice’s (OPCTJ) William Barclay.

“We want our institutions to embody those values,” Barclay said of the statement. West Suburban Hospital’s conduct, he said, “was a complete violation of that spirit.”

“Our jobs got much harder three years ago when we got a new manager,” former West Sub housekeeping employee Shelly Harrison told the crowd. “Since then black and Latino workers have faced all kinds of discrimination, from unequal treatment to unfair firing.”

Barclay noted that some 10 complaints had been filed by current or former West Sub employees with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. West Sub and Resurrection, he insisted, should not wait for the state to respond to those complaints before correcting the alleged inequities.

“They could do it tomorrow,” he told the crowd.

“They could do it today,” someone called back.

Afterwards, a group of nine marchers were allowed to enter onto hospital property to deliver petitions bearing 1,000 signatures to a hospital official who reportedly hand-delivered them to CEO Jay Kreuzer.

The petitions urged the hospital to cease alleged discriminatory practices that they say include inequitable pay and pay raises, racial segregation of housekeeping staff, more difficult work assignments for black and Latino workers, unfair enforcement of work rules and racially disparaging comments reportedly made by white supervisory staff.

On Jan. 8, Barclay and Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACCC) sent Kreuzer a letter on the Oak Park/Austin Health Alliance letterhead requesting a Jan. 15 meeting. OPAHA is composed of the OPCTJ and SACCC. They are working with Local 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal workers (AFSCME), though the OPAHA letterhead does not mention ASFCME.

“For several years … housekeeping staff members have struggled to maintain their dignity and their jobs despite a range of discriminatory actions on the part of management,” the letter charged. It further called on the hospital to halt alleged discrimination against mostly poor and minority uninsured patients.

Barclay said Monday that Kreuzer has refused to meet with any organization that includes a union representative.

In a Jan. 12 reply, Kreuzer stated he was willing to meet with both Barclay and Redmond, who signed the Jan. 8 letter, but not with any union representatives.

“As I have stated previously, our employees have the right to choose with whom they associate. Because they have not selected any union to represent them, union leaders, organizers or union representatives are not invited to participate in our meeting,” Kreuzer wrote. He noted that he was busy on Monday, but offered to meet with the two men within the next two weeks.

Kreuzer was in a meeting and unavailable for comment Tuesday morning. But West Sub spokeswoman Molly Gaus contended that OPAHA is funded and supported by AFSCME Local 31, saying “[Local 31] has been trying to organize our workers for years. So far they haven’t been able to have a vote.”

Responding to OPAHA’s charge that West Suburban allots only 75 cents of every $100 of revenue to the care of indigent patients, Gaus said that Resurrection has cared for any and all patients seeking treatment.

“We provide care to anyone who walks in the door,” said Gaus. In 2006, she said, the hospital spent $29.3 million in free and discounted care, adding, “We did that while losing money.”

Gaus acknowledged that numerous employees have filed complaints with the Department of Human Rights.

“We oppose discrimination and harassment,” she said. “And we adhere to the letter and the spirit of the law.”

The hospital, she said, is currently preparing responses to the human rights complaints.

“We believe we have a sound and vigorous defense,” she said.

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