With an apology issued last month, the Medical University of South Carolina’s Board of Trustees again acknowledged that discrimination led to the 1969 Hospital Workers’ Strike. The admission drew praise, but also renewed the debate over how committed MUSC is to improving diversity and addressing grievances that remain unresolved today.
“For those who are being discriminated against, it feels like it’s 1969,” said Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP.
Scott has received complaints from some African-American employees of MUSC, and she’s consulted with local worker advocate Leonard Riley about how to respond. Most black employees are limited to lower-paying jobs in housekeeping, food services and parking garages, Scott said. And upward mobility is not an option for many black workers.
The hospital strike was a consequence of unfair treatment of black nurses and other workers, who, led by the late Mary Moultrie, mounted a two-year effort to demand higher wages and union representation. About 450 people from the Medical College and 80 from Charleston County Hospital joined the protest. The state, prohibited by state law from bargaining with the union, would not fulfill all the protesters’ demands, offering instead a compromise that raised wages modestly and established a grievance procedure.
“We, the Board of Trustees of The Medical University of South Carolina, deeply regret the discriminatory working conditions that led to the 1969 Hospital Workers’ Strike,” the trustees stated in their resolution, passed Aug. 14. “These discriminatory attitudes and behaviors were clearly wrong, and we are fully committed to learning from the grave mistakes of the past.”
The apology was well-received by some black leaders, especially because it seemed to be backed up with action. MUSC is in the process of implementing its comprehensive Strategic Plan for Diversity and Inclusion. In January, it welcomed a new chief diversity officer, Anton Gunn, and it boosted the profile of another employee, Willette Burnham, making her director of student diversity.
The Rev. Nelson Rivers, a local civil rights activist, said combining good words with action is what’s needed.
“I think that is the model for how you respond,” Rivers said.
More words and the promise of action came from MUSC’s Faculty Senate, which issued a statement in response to the trustee’s apology.
“Those heroes of MUSC’s history, predominantly African-American women, took great personal risks in order to push a then-unwilling institution toward justice and a more comprehensive appreciation of its own mission,” the faculty statement read. “Although maligned by many, including members of faculty, these employees taught us all one of the more important lessons ever delivered at MUSC. It has taken us too long to learn and acknowledge the lesson. It will take continued vigilance and humility for us to apply it.”
Applying it means declaring the faculty’s “commitment to diversity and inclusion across our mission,” fostering dialogue and taking action “to make amends for our history of discrimination.”
Faculty President Tom Smith said the apology is significant, but more important is “a full-scale embrace of the participants as our heroes.”
Embracing past activists won’t impact diversity at MUSC today, though, Smith said. Faculty, therefore, are putting the topic front and center in an effort to create a large recruitment pool of potential academic hires.
“What we’ve done is pull together a group of people to engage in a search who are themselves diverse,” he said. Finding skilled people for top-level posts tends to be a little easier than finding talented people for the far more numerous low-level and mid-level positions, Smith said. But that’s all the more reason to improve diversity.
MUSC competes with other institutions for such talent and must distinguish itself as an attractive place to work if it hopes to employ the cream of the crop, he said.
“If you say it enough, and act on it after you say it, then students see it, and professors see it,” making recruitment and retention easier, he said. “You don’t want to lose people once you’ve got them in because your environment isn’t as good as you pretended it was in the interview.”
Gunn said more than 150 people at MUSC are involved in diversity planning.
“It’s more than an initiative,” he said. “It’s about building diversity and inclusion into the DNA of this institution.”
To do so, MUSC is focused on recruitment, training and community engagement, he said. With 13,000 employees, the Medical University’s economic footprint is large, and its steps reverberate through the region.
“Our success is intimately involved with the success of the community,” he said.
There also is a powerful financial self-interest that informs the effort to identify, hire, train and retain a diverse workforce, Gunn added.
“When you don’t have happy and engaged employees, they quit,” he said. For example, it costs about $80,000, or 1.5 times her salary, to replace an operating room nurse. That can add up quickly: A turnover of, say, 300 nurses in a year, would cost the university around $24 million. And that’s no hypothetical number. Job vacancies are a daily occurrence, and MUSC organizes new employee orientation sessions every two weeks that can fill up with as many as 100 people.
At a special event in 1999 marking the 30th anniversary of the Hospital Strike, Dr. Thaddeus Bell, then director of MUSC’s office of diversity, apologized on behalf of President James B. Edwards for the school’s response to the strike. Bell had convinced Edwards to issue the statement in order to get on the right side of history, he said.
At the event, Moultrie spoke of continuing problems.
“On a weekly basis I get complaints from employees at the hospital who say there is still a lot of prejudice and discrimination,” she said.
In Oct. 2013, MUSC and Preservation Society of Charleston unveiled a historic marker on campus and organized a public presentation to talk about the hospital strike.
Moultrie, by then in ill health, praised MUSC for the obvious progress it had made, but also raised the specter of ongoing worker discord.
There are still lessons to be learned from the strike, she said. Discrimination still can be a problem in the workplace. “We’ve got a long way to come,” she said.
The employee complaints she mentioned in 1999 and again in 2013 still resonate on campus today.
Christine Nelson, a registered nurse, was terminated by MUSC in February 2014 after nearly 20 years of service.
In a recent interview, Nelson, who is black, spoke of bullying, intimidation and unequal treatment of blacks and whites on the job. Serious trouble started for her when she encouraged a colleague to file a written complaint about her supervisor, she said. When she refused to show up for what she characterized as an impromptu meeting she feared would only result in unfair personal attacks, she was fired for insubordination, she said.
Today, Nelson said she’s still calling for changes to MUSC’s employee-review process.
“The only thing I want out of all this is for MUSC to be made to have an independent review,” she said. “A state entity can’t investigate a state entity.”
Elise Cromwell, a registered nurse who had worked in Mount Pleasant for MUSC, also spoke of bad managers, intimidation and retaliation on the job. When she raised concerns, ultimately filing a labor board complaint in 2011 about the way she was treated, she was accused of having a “negative attitude” by her supervisor and transferred from the operating room to sterile processing, a demotion she said was purposefully demeaning. She continued to fight her case until she was fired late last month.
“It’s so bad now, even my white co-workers are complaining,” said Cromwell, who is black. “Employees have no outlet, they’re scared, they have nowhere to go.”
Riley, the local worker advocate providing support to MUSC employees with grievances, said these problems are not isolated events but part of a long-standing culture of discrimination. While he appreciates the hospital’s recent efforts to acknowledge its history, he worries that a broad focus on diversity campuswide could weaken any effort to address specific grievances, he said.
“They need to be a little more genuine in these efforts,” Riley said.
Gunn acknowledged that, in an institution that employs so many people, a few bad managers are inevitable. But he hasn’t identified a pattern of abusive behavior. If the problems turned out to be systemic, he would get involved and push for reform, he said. Meanwhile, MUSC has a grievance process available to any disgruntled worker, he said.
“This is not a perfect institution, but where we are today is not where we were yesterday, not where we were five years ago, not where we were 20 years ago,” Gunn said.
The changes are obvious, Scott said. But they shouldn’t obscure ongoing problems.
“Have things improved? Absolutely,” she said. “But it took 50 years, and it’s still going.”
In 1969, MUSC had no minority personnel in leadership positions. Not so today.
“Since we started formally working on diversity (in July 2013), we have hired minorities as department heads (3), executives/administrators (2), advanced managers (12), mid-level managers (76) and nurse managers (10),” Gunn wrote in an email. “These numbers don’t include the numbers of minorities that were internally promoted into higher-level positions. These numbers don’t include women, either (another form of diversity).”
The topic of diversity — which encompasses race, gender, age, national identity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, professional experience, language proficiency and more — now is part of many meetings and training sessions, Gunn said. Community activists and civic leaders such as Riley, the NAACP’s Scott and the Rev. Jimmy Gallant have attended some of these meetings, he said.
About 5,000 employees have gone through voluntary diversity training since 2007, and all new employees are briefed on the Strategic Plan for Diversity and Inclusion. Ultimately, Gunn said, a more diverse workforce leads to other improvements, including better health outcomes and financial stability.
“We’re willing to work with anybody who wants us to become a better institution,” he said. “We want to get better.”
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