The Service Employees Industrial Union, or SEIU, has launched an ad campaign targeting Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The campaign, called Eye On BI, addresses what the SEIU says are problems with patient safety and quality of care. But the union's eye is really on another objective.
The SEIU's Eye on BI campaign is a labor-organizing effort in sheep's clothing. On the surface, the union's advertising is all about hospital staffing and patient care. The campaign’s Web site sets the tone with photos of medical personnel holding their heads in their hands, a la Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments.
A full-page ad in the local dailies features the headline "Got Chiefs?" alongside a photo of an empty lab coat. The ad notes that "Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is without permanent leadership in major areas, including: Surgery, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Psychiatry, and The Cardiovascular Institute.
"Meanwhile," the ad copy continues, "many of these departments have been at the center of headline-grabbing patient care problems."
A radio spot in the SEIU's ad campaign focuses on cost.
"The fact is, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's ER is 70 percent more expensive than other Massachusetts hospitals," the spot says. "And check your co-pay. That comes right out of your pocket."
Wait a second. Your co-pay is your co-pay whichever hospital you go to, right? What's that got to do with BI?
"What’s any of it got to do with BI?" is the question Beth Israel CEO Paul Levy has been asking. He’s fought back not in print and radio ads, but on his tireless blog, Running a Hospital.
Levy has responded to the SEIU ads by writing, "The purpose [of the campaign] is not actually to organize workers, who tend to be offended by the ads . . . the purpose is to denigrate the reputation of the hospital, its lay leaders, and its management in the hope of creating public pressure to provide concessions that would make it easier for the union to organize workers here."
So, it's not about union organizing but organizing a union? Sounds like a distinction without a difference to me.
More to the point, Levy asks whether there is any independent evidence to suggest that in unionized hospitals patient care is better or cheaper than in non-union ones? Or that patient or worker satisfaction is higher in unionized hospitals?
All good questions, but unlikely to be heard by the general public, since readership of Paul Levy's blog is well below readership of, say, the Boston Globe.
But that's the corporate instinct: Don't give high-profile attacks more attention by attacking them in a high-profile way.
Or, to paraphrase Sean Connery in The Untouchables, leave it to a CEO to bring a knife to a gunfight. That approach almost always backfires.
John Carroll is senior media analyst for WBUR and a mass communication professor at Boston University.
This program aired on May 20, 2009.