In 1996, a proud union busting Gannett editor named Bob Giles who played a leading role in sparking a bitter newspaper strike at the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, penned a column in which he essentially declared that the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. would have supported management in the labor dispute.

“The newspaper strike seeks to resist change and reform,” Giles said. He argued that management’s efforts to replace striking workers was following the tradition of King and Henry David Thoreau by performing “civil disobedience in the face of the established order.”

Giles’ comments found their way to King’s son, Martin Luther King III, who was outraged. The younger King flew to Detroit and attended a union rally of striking newspaper workers held at New Bethel Baptist Church, the center of the civil rights movement and where famed singer Aretha Franklin’s father once served as pastor. The rally, replete with gospel singers, gave the battered striking newspaper workers a major psychological boost and reminded metro Detroit residents that MLK was first and foremost a champion of workers’ rights and a diehard union supporter.

Tina Freese Decker, CEO of Michigan’s biggest hospital network known as the BHSH System, would have been wise to read up on King’s background before shamefully invoking his name in a memo to employees on Friday announcing she planned to fire 400 employees. The memo was sent out with a photo of Freese Decker sporting a huge smile.

“Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Our survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenges of change,’” Freese Decker began her memo, decidedly among the most shameful and disingenuous HR communiques I’ve ever read. “I chose a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. because it spoke to me at this moment. Things are hard. With the current economic situation, there are no easy solutions. Thus, we need to adjust to new ideas, remain vigilant and face the challenges head on as an integrated system.”

Freese Decker was CEO of Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health, which in February closed on its acquisition of Beaumont Health, a troubled eight-hospital system serving Detroit’s suburbs.  When the deal closed, BHSH promised there would be no layoffs.

That Freese Decker would invoke the wisdom of MLK comes as no surprise. Whereas most hospital CEOs might strive to create the best healthcare systems for the communities they serve, Freese Decker’s official bio stresses “she is committed to building a health system that celebrates and reinforces diversity, equity and inclusion for team members, patients, families and members.” By feigning a connection to MLK, I suspect Freese Decker expected BHSH’s Black employees would be heartened by her knowledge of his teachings.

In my experience, there’s typically an inverse relationship between the rhetoric of executives who shout the loudest about their commitment to diversity and their actual track records. Giles, the former Detroit News editor, and Freese Decker serve as exhibits A and B.

Chauncey Bailey/family photo

Gannett paid great lip service to improving newsroom diversity, but they didn’t value or appreciate strong-willed Black reporters who didn’t support the company’s pablum journalism. When Gannett named Giles editor of the Detroit News after it acquired the publication, longstanding Black reporters staged a byline strike because they didn’t like what they sensed was a patronizing attitude that Giles and others he brought to Detroit to run the publication displayed. Most of the legacy Detroit News Black employees quit, opting to join publications where they could pursue higher standards of journalism than Gannett’s. One of them was Chauncey Bailey, who moved back to his native Oakland to become editor of a local newspaper and was murdered by a crime syndicate he was investigating.

Freese Decker’s diversity and inclusion track record is also less than stellar. Some of Spectrum’s Black employees met with an attorney last year to gauge the possibility of filing a class action lawsuit alleging discrimination. I wrote a column for Deadline Detroit about the indignities Spectrum’s Black employees alleged they experienced. Pretty disturbing stuff.

Spectrum experienced a significant turnover in its HR department among Black employees, but filing a lawsuit was a formidable challenge because when Black employees left because of what they perceived as intolerable conditions they were given generous severance payouts if they agreed to not publicly talk about their concerns.

Ovell Barbee, Spectrum’s nationally respected former head of diversity, resigned last October to join Indiana University Health rather than remain and oversee diversity at the biggest hospital system in his native Michigan. Notably, Barbee oversees HR at Indiana University Health, an indication that he wanted a meaningful operating role rather than what I’ve long suspected is a ceremonial one. One source familiar with Spectrum Health’s operations told me that when the hospital system announced plans to acquire Beaumont, Barbee wasn’t included in the initial planning sessions.

My skepticism of diversity management positions was reinforced after reading this NBC News story about Joseph B. Hill whose job offer to become vice president, chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston was rescinded four days before he was to begin his position. Among the reasons given to Hill’s attorney for the change of heart: He was “too sensitive about race issues.”

Carlos Cubia/BHSH photo

Freese Decker in June announced the hiring of former Walgreen’s executive Carlos Cubia to oversee inclusion, equity, diversity, and sustainability at BHSH. A few weeks ago, Freese Decker announced the hiring of Tracie Morris, the former HR head at Chicago-based BMO Financial Group, as the system’s “chief people officer.”

Freese Decker regularly engages in PRspeak, which is another sign of her insincerity. Executives who are genuinely open and transparent prefer to make meaningful statements rather than ones filled with saccharine and spin.

Here’s a sample from Freese Decker’s memo announcing the firing of 400 employees.

I am incredibly grateful for you. I see you behind the mask. I see you laugh and I see you cry. I see the compassion you give. I see the heartache that you go through when things get tough. I see the light in your eyes with new ideas to make it even better. I see your excitement and pride about saving lives and making an impact for our community. Thank you for all that you do.

Freese Decker said the firings were necessary because “our operating margin, excluding non-recurring state and federal COVID-19 funding, has declined from 3% to 0.7%. This is driven by lower volumes and higher agency, critical staffing, supply and pharmacy costs in our care delivery settings.” She also claimed that “our decline in margin is not because of the integration between Beaumont Health and Spectrum Health.”

BHSH reported last month that Beaumont racked up nearly $100 million in losses in the first six months Spectrum acquired the hospital system, so I’m at a loss to understand how acquiring Beaumont hasn’t impaired the financials of the combined enterprise. The higher agency and critical staffing costs will likely worsen at Beaumont, where many nurses are expected to quit in January after retention bonuses awarded 18 months ago must be paid.

Perhaps I’m mistaken and that Freese Decker is truly committed to the principles and ideals of MLK. If that’s the case, hopefully employees of BHSH will take note and leverage the opportunity to unionize, an effort MLK would have applauded, particularly at a hospital system in a cost cutting mode.

In 2019, nurses at Beaumont’s flagship hospital in Royal Oak attempted to organize but former CEO John Fox spent nearly $2 million on union busting consultants to derail the effort. Given the dire labor conditions at Beaumont, I expect there’s still interest in a union, particularly one blessed by the CEO.

In 2023, Martin Luther King Day falls on January 16, so there’s enough time to get a BHSH union up and running in time for the holiday.  I can think of no better way to honor MLK’S memory.

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