Labor rights protesters, MUSC Board discuss employee grievance process

Thomas Dixon (left) and Leonard Riley laid out several changes they want MUSC to make to its employee grievance policy during an MUSC Board of Trustees meeting on Friday. “I was pleased that it actually happened,” Riley said. “In my mind, it’s historic,” said Riley after the meeting. Diversity officer Anton Gunn is at right.

For the first time ever, two leaders of a local labor rights group were given permission to address the Medical University of South Carolina board during a formal meeting.

Leonard Riley and Thomas Dixon have organized silent protests during similar MUSC Board of Trustees meetings for more than a year. They represent Healthcare Workers United, a group calling for more diversity, higher wages, and a fairer grievance process at the hospital and university.

“There’s a problem here with racism,” Riley told the board. “Our responsibility today is to deal with that.”

Three Democratic state lawmakers who represent parts of the Lowcountry — Reps. Wendell Gilliard and David Mack and Sen. Marlon Kimpson — also attended the meeting.

Riley and Dixon laid out several changes they want MUSC to make to its employee grievance policy.

They said low-level workers can’t afford outside legal counsel during grievance proceedings and that MUSC should somehow offer their workers access to a lawyer.

While an appointed panel of employees renders decisions during these hearings, Riley said MUSC’s in-house attorney effectively functions as “judge and jury.”

“Both sides should have access to legal advice,” Riley said.

Among other recommendations, Dixon suggested that some members of the appointed grievance panel should be elected by employees.

The lawmakers asked MUSC leaders to adopt some of the recommendations that the men made. The board took no action on their suggestions Friday. The changes may only require administrative, not board, approval.

“I thought many of the recommendations were legitimate and substantive,” Kimpson said. “Let’s get this done.”

MUSC board member Tom Stephenson practices employment law. He pointed out that MUSC’s grievance process is already much friendlier to employees than businesses in the private sector or other public bodies.

That’s not good enough, Riley and Dixon said.

“We want to push for the best worker environment ... for everyone,” Dixon said. “Because when we improve the worker, we improve the (patient) care.”

Tension between the MUSC board and Healthcare Workers United mounted late last year when Dixon interrupted the board’s December meeting. He accused board members of ignoring the group.

In late January, the board adopted new “rules of decorum” during a special Sunday meeting. The rules prohibit members of the public from standing up during board meetings, from holding signs or from addressing board members.

Some members of Healthcare Workers United waved small American flags during the meeting and stood up in the public gallery. They were not asked to sit down.

MUSC President David Cole made clear that members of the university’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee have an opportunity at every board meeting to make a formal report. That committee, established in 2014, includes members of Healthcare Workers United, but their report had, until Friday, always been delivered to the board by MUSC staff.

In that light, Riley said he thought Friday’s meeting “went well.”

“I was pleased that it actually happened,” Riley said. “In my mind, it’s historic. I’ve been in a lot of ‘feel good’ meetings, but this one, I’m really encouraged.”

Board Chairman Don Johnson thanked Riley and Dixon for their presentation.

“I think we can work through some of those (recommendations),” Johnson said. “This board is hearing you.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.