South Carolina hospital accused of tarnishing legacy of Coretta Scott King

MUSC, scene of strike led by Martin Luther King’s widow, denies claims of racism against black nurses, technicians and custodians

In the summer of 1969, Coretta Scott King, the recently widowed wife of the civil rights hero Dr Martin Luther King Jr, led a strike of hundreds of black female nurses at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). Under the banner “I Am Somebody”, they protested for the right to bargain collectively.

Almost 50 years later, many black women working at MUSC argue little has changed and at least two workers are suing for redress, claiming they have been the victims of systemic racism. The hospital vehemently denies the claims.

The strike that King led lasted 120 days. After unionized black dock workers threatened to strike in solidarity and federal officials threatened to pull funds, MUSC agreed to some reforms.

The women did not win the right to bargain collectively but they did win pay raises, the right to independent panels to handle grievances and firings and, most importantly, they won respect. MUSC pledged to do more to do fix its racist culture.

Since then, Charleston has evolved into a cosmopolitan beachside town. MUSC has become a symbol of such growth, educating more than 3,000 students in six colleges and employing more than 15,000 people.

However, workers at the hospital still lack collective bargaining rights and some custodians at the university make as little $9 an hour. Lacking a union contract, workers say the overwhelmingly white management disproportionately fires black workers, a charge MUSC denies.

In an email to the Guardian, MUSC stated: “It has been, and will continue to be, the policy of the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) to recruit, hire, train and promote into all job levels the most qualified persons without regard to race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, disability, veteran status, genetic information, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

While the majority of the workforce at the hospital is black, some MUSC employees argue that people of color are primarily consigned to less prestigious jobs such as custodians, hospital technicians and nurses, while more prestigious jobs in management, as doctors and in the more prestigious nursing positions in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) are staffed primarily by white people.

“If you walk through that unit right now and you see someone who looks like me please tell me,” said one former nurse at MUSC, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

While the hospital has hired staff to focus on making MUSC more diverse and inclusive, black workers claim their voices are not heard. Indeed, they say, the board of trustees of MUSC will not even let workers speak during public comment periods at regular public meetings.

MUSC contends that state law does not require it to allow public comment periods. Many other public institutions in South Carolina do allow such comments.

Workers and their advocates claim there is a longstanding problem with racist language and behavior involving managers.

“There are a handful of white managers who are just notorious for being racists,” said Kerry Taylor, a labor historian at nearby Citadel Military College who has studied working conditions at the hospital and assisted workers in organizing.

“There are these racist managers who when they are found to be in the wrong, they aren’t suspended or fired, they are just relocated to different parts of the hospital, they are just sorta shuffled around.”

Even the right to have grievances heard by an independent state-appointed panel, won in that 1969 strike, has been rolled back, workers say. Now, grievances at the hospital are heard solely by a panel of hospital administrators, appointed by management.

“When the nurses struck they were trying to make progress and take two steps forward, but now it seems we have taken two steps back,” said 32-year-old nurse Altanya Coaxum, who was fired from her job in November. “I don’t feel like Coretta Scott King’s vision is fulfilled.”

Coaxum, who has filed a grievance procedure and said she intends to pursue legal action, said she was falsely accused of performing a procedure incorrectly. She presented witnesses, she said, who said she had performed the procedure correctly. She claimed her evidence was overruled by white management.

“The fact that they were white made them appear that were credible,” she said.

Coaxum intends to fight her firing with the help of Health Care Workers United, a group of workers who are fighting for change at the hospital. Working with lawyers and local labor and community allies, the group has helped win reinstatement of some workers who were fired and improvements in working conditions.

But despite the outpouring of public support many black workers like Coaxum receive when they are fired, many say the deck is stacked against them when they attempt to take legal action.

Some nurses interviewed by the Guardian claimed that when they attempted to sue for racial discrimination, MUSC management countered with claims that the fired worker engaged in practices that would allow the state to strip them of their nursing license, barring them from future employment in their field.

“MUSC has been known to threaten, make up things, make false accusations,” said Coaxum. “They are just a monster, they really are. If workers speak up against the white management, they are pretty much eaten alive by MUSC and you can be blacklisted permanently from your profession.”

In an email to the Guardian, MUSC denied it had problems involving racial discrimination and said it would not comment on individual cases.

“We categorically deny these unattributed and unfounded allegations about how we treat our present or former care team members,” a statement said.

Workers dispute MUSC’s record on race and say the dream of quality championed by workers in 1969 has not been fulfilled.

“Coretta Scott King’s dream has not come to reality, we are not treated fairly, we are not treated equally and it’s all based on our skin,” said 50-year-old former MUSC nurse Chris Nelson, who was fired in 2014 and is suing MUSC for racial discrimination.

“Everybody has a voice and their voice should be heard.”

Contributor

Mike Elk

The GuardianTramp

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