Grace Larson, former licensed practical nurse with Planned Parenthood North Central States and bargaining member of SEIU Healthcare MN & IA, poses for a portrait outside of the SEIU offices of St. Paul on March 30, 2023. Larson is challenging her termination from Planned Parenthood. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.
Planned Parenthood North Central States has fired two members of the elected bargaining team in charge of negotiating wages, benefits and working conditions for hundreds of newly unionized employees across five states.
The other 11 bargaining team members have received “final written warnings,” which says they can be terminated immediately if they violate any other policy. It’s a uniquely severe form of discipline that longtime employees say they hadn’t heard of before.
Workers and union leaders at SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa say the terminations and disciplinary actions are based on trumped-up claims of misconduct that amount to brazen union busting.
“I think it’s about mitigating the power and strength of the union,” said Grace Larson, who was fired from her job as a licensed practical nurse at Planned Parenthood on Tuesday.
The discipline stems from an allegation that confidential information about the organization was shared in the union’s private group chat.
Planned Parenthood managers apparently obtained a copy of the union’s private group chat. The workers’ alleged breach of confidentiality had nothing to do with patient data, but rather about a previous employee’s termination and an effort by management to limit workers wearing union T-shirts on the job.
The violations happened months ago, and the union hoped to keep the inner turmoil under wraps to avoid embroiling a revered progressive institution in a public spectacle when it’s confronting new abortion restrictions across the country.
Yet the termination of Larson for alleged retaliation has forced the issue into public view. The union has filed complaints with federal authorities at the National Labor Relations Board.
Union leaders said they hoped for a collegial negotiating process with Planned Parenthood after workers voted to unionize last July. The union represents more than 400 nurses, clinicians, administrative assistants, educators and other workers across Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and North and South Dakota.
The organization’s new CEO, Democratic state Rep. Ruth Richardson of Mendota Heights, was endorsed by labor unions including SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa.
On her campaign website, Richardson credits her dad’s union with saving them from economic ruin after he was injured on the job. “Unions are under attack right now, but I am committed to standing with them as they did with me and my family all those years ago,” her website says.
Yet union leaders say Planned Parenthood’s hardball approach is reminiscent of giant corporations like Amazon, Starbucks and Tesla, which have waged expensive campaigns to prevent the proliferation of unions among their rank-and-file workers.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Phillip Cryan, executive vice president for SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa.
“It has been really concerning to see the way that the organization’s leadership has decided to treat the elected members of their bargaining team in ways we’ve literally not seen any other employer ever do,” he said.
Richardson did not respond to emails seeking comment.
A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood shared a statement on behalf of Molly Gage, vice president of human resources, that said the organization would not publicly comment on individual personnel matters.
“Planned Parenthood North Central States leadership is committed to bargaining in good faith with SEIU and strongly disagrees with any characterization to the contrary. We support the dedicated PPNCS employees across the affiliate as they preserve abortion access for the community and provide essential education and health services,” the statement said.
The discipline stems from a falling-out in the bargaining committee that started late last year.
In November, the 14-member bargaining committee was meeting with Planned Parenthood leaders in Des Moines to negotiate a labor agreement.
One night after negotiations, Ashley Schmidt says a co-worker became belligerent at the hotel, slapped her across the face and accused her of “making fun of me with your mind.”
April Clark, who is a Planned Parenthood training specialist, witnessed the slap and told the Reformer it was hard enough to leave a handprint.
The Reformer is not naming the individual because no charges were filed and they were unable to be reached for comment.
Schmidt, a training specialist in Nebraska and Iowa, said the slap was unprovoked and came after years of bullying on the job.
Schmidt says she initially didn’t bring the incident to the attention of the rest of the bargaining team because she didn’t want to distract from contract negotiations. But then the next month, Schmidt says the co-worker became verbally abusive toward Schmidt’s 7-year-old daughter, calling the little girl “unimpressive,” “unimportant” and “selfish.”
“And that’s what finally got me to be like, I need to leave the bargaining team. I need to set a boundary,” Schmidt said.
When she told the bargaining team why she wanted to step down, they decided to hold meetings with both her and the co-worker. In mid-January, they voted unanimously to ask the person accused of slapping Schmidt to resign from the bargaining team.
Within days of the person stepping down from the bargaining team, all the remaining members were placed under investigation and one member was fired, according to workers.
Larson, the former Planned Parenthood nurse fired this week, says she and other members of the bargaining team were told they had failed to report a breach of confidentiality, but told little else. She said her investigatory meeting with human resources lasted less than 10 minutes.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Larson said. “They said that they couldn’t tell us specifically what the accusation was — just that I had knowledge of wrongdoing and I did not turn it in.”
The union was able to piece together that Planned Parenthood’s managers must have received a copy of a private Signal group chat between the bargaining team and union staff. Union leaders say Planned Parenthood managers have quoted things said in the chat verbatim, though they have not said where they got the information.
In the chat, one person had shared private information about another employee’s termination as well as management’s plan to enforce its dress code to crack down on workers wearing union T-shirts. That person was fired and the others believe they were disciplined for not reporting the alleged breach of confidentiality.
Clark, the training specialist in Iowa, says she was never told exactly what she was supposed to have seen in the group chat and failed to report.
“It is a group chat with over a dozen people in it, and I’m busy … I don’t always see everything that goes through the chat,” Clark said. “I said, ‘I want to see what you’re saying I did because I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
She said Planned Parenthood managers still give no specifics beyond failing to report a breach of confidentiality.
Each of the bargaining team members received a final written warning, including Schmidt. The final warning never expires, which means they could be immediately fired if they break any policy again.
Union leaders say it felt like hardball intimidation, even as negotiations progressed toward a labor agreement.
In March, Larson found out she was under investigation again.
She had sent an email from her personal account to a non-profit organization in Nebraska that also employs the Planned Parenthood worker accused of slapping Schmidt.
The co-worker is employed teaching young people about having healthy and safe relationships, and Larson thought they should be aware of the alleged slap.
“I wanted them to be aware of this incident,” Larson said. “I felt it’s the right thing to do. And I still feel it’s the right thing to do.”
Larson never heard back from the non-profit, but Planned Parenthood’s human resources department received a copy. According to Larson, management informed her she was under investigation. On the advice of her therapist, she took a brief leave. When she returned, Larson said, management alleged she had retaliated against a coworker by sending the email, and fired her on Tuesday.
SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa is fighting for Larson’s job back. They’re contesting the termination and filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
“I’m gonna keep up the fight,” Larson said.
*This story has been corrected for the number of bargaining team members disciplined.
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