Starkman: Corewell Health Running Scared as Teamsters Union Drive Gains Momentum with Hospital Nurses

November 02, 2023, 3:11 PM

The writer, a Los Angeles freelancer and former Detroit News business reporter. He blogs at

By Eric Starkman

Darryl and Tina

Pity Darryl Elmouchi, COO of Corewell Health. His boss, CEO Tina Freese Decker, made the dimwitted decision to take over Beaumont Health’s troubled Metro Detroit hospital system more than a year ago, and things have gone from bad to worse. I know that’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

Elmouchi’s job is to clean up Freese Decker’s doo-doo.

Elmouchi in August was named interim chief of Corewell’s Metro Detroit eight hospitals, replacing Ben Schwartz, a hot shot New York physician and hospital executive Freese Decker hired with great fanfare but who lasted only 13 months.

Elmouchi is best likened to the proverbial boy with his finger in the dyke. No sooner than he cleans up one soiled mess, another one surfaces.

Elmouchi’s first order of business was salvaging Corewell’s lucrative surgery businesses at the company’s Royal Oak, Troy, and Grosse Pointe hospitals. Nurse anesthetists at these hospitals work for Texas-based NorthStar Anesthesia, and Schwartz wanted to bring them in house. Despite a $10,000 bonus offer and multiple threats they’d lose their jobs and their seniority if they didn't sign a contract, few, if any, nurse anesthetists signed up.

NorthStar And the Teamsters

The NorthStar nurse anesthetists insisted that Corewell negotiate with the Teamsters, the union that represents them. Corewell refused to recognize the Teamsters and was forced to beg NorthStar to continue servicing its hospitals after the outsourcing firm had given notice that it wouldn’t seek to renew its contract.

One can only imagine the terms NorthStar secured knowing it had Corewell by the corporate cojones.

Elmouchi’s next order of business was dealing with the fallout of Dearborn breast surgeon Majd Aruarabia’s seeming celebration of the Hamas Israel massacres and an Arab American Medical Association protest outside Corewell Royal Oak where healthcare workers where chanting “Intifada, Intifada! Long live the Intifada” -- a Palestinian war cry for the violent overthrow of Israel.

Detroit’s Jewish community wasn’t pleased with the response they received from Darryl and Tina, which is how the response was signed.

Worst Nightmare

Elmouchi is now facing the worst nightmare of every U.S. hospital executive: A nurses union organizing attempt at Corewell’s eight Metro Detroit hospitals. Not just any organizing attempt but one led by the Teamsters, whose chief Sean O’Brien makes UAW president Shawn Fain look like a pussycat.

O’Brien and Fain both respectively sought 40% wage hikes from UPS and the Big 3 automakers; UPS caved to O’Brien’s demands while Fain settled for a 25% wage hike.

O’Brien proudly uses the social media handle S.O.B.

Organizing Corewell’s nurses possibly will prove the easiest union drive in the Teamsters history, as it was Corewell nurse Lisa Vergos who reached out to the Teamsters and asked if the union would represent Corewell’s Metro Detroit nurses.  

Lisa Vergos

“The Teamsters are badass,” Vergos said when asked why she chose that union. “They are workhorses. So are nurses.”

I associated the Teamsters with breaking legs, not representing nurses who help heal them. To my surprise, the union already represents 35,000 healthcare workers in virtually every profession.

More importantly, about 200 of those workers are the nurse anesthetists servicing Corewell’s premier Royal Oak, Troy, and Grosse Pointe hospitals, many of whom are the most badass healthcare workers I’ve ever encountered.

A good chunk of the NorthStar nurse anesthetists servicing Corewell’s northern hospitals are former Beaumont employees who were part of an elite anesthesiology team when Beaumont once ranked among the best regional hospitals in the country, even higher than Ann Arbor-based Michigan Medicine in some specialties.

Carolyn Wilson, Beaumont’s former COO, threw the nurse anesthetists under the bus during the pandemic when she opted to outsource anesthesia to NorthStar. Those who agreed to join NorthStar immediately moved to form their own union, and later opted to be represented by the Teamsters.

Adamant About Teamsters

Underscoring their satisfaction and loyalty to the Teamsters, few, if any, NorthStar nurse anesthetists agreed to join Corewell despite offers of a $10,000 signing bonus. They were adamant that Corewell negotiate with the Teamsters.

“We’ve been extremely happy with Teamsters,” a NorthStar nurse anesthetist told me. “They are always available for our questions and concerns and incorporate our concerns with their union knowledge to formulate the best plan moving forward. Teamsters have many resources that have been very valuable when something is out of our realm of understanding.”

Patient safety was one of the driving impetuses of the former Beaumont nurse anesthetists to form a union, and that is one of the motivations of the organizers of Corewell’s latest nursing drive.

“They’ve asked us to do more with less staff,” Vergos said. “The nursing staff is stretched too thin.” 

The nurses at Corewell’s Royal Oak hospital attempted to unionize in 2019 but the effort was derailed after management spent $1.8 million on union busters to intimidate them. The National Labor Relations Board alleged that Beaumont violated U.S. labor laws in more than 30 instances. Management pushback was so intense that the Michigan Nurses Association, which led the Royal Oak union drive, vowed they would never again attempt to organize the hospital’s nurses.

Conditions to organize Corewell’s Metro Detroit hospitals are more fertile than the farmland Gov. Whitmer destroyed in rural Marshall so Ford could build a battery plant. The lucrative wage increases and improved benefits the Teamsters and UAW respectfully negotiated with UPS and the Big 3 automakers have called attention to the benefits of union bargaining, as is growing anger with the disparity of wages between top managers and their workers.

Former Beaumont CEO John Fox was making well over $6 million annually in his last years, so it’s reasonable to assume that Freese Decker is making even more given that she is overseeing a considerably larger hospital system. I’ve previously written why Fox’s golden parachute might have been $30 million or higher.  

Dr. Benjamin Schwartz

The scuttlebutt at Corewell’s Metro Detroit hospitals is that Ben Schwartz, the departed chief Freese Decker lured to run the former Beaumont hospitals, received a $20 million severance.

Elmouchi ignored a request for comment, as did Rob Zeiger, Corewell’s VP of communications and community relations, and “spokesman” Mark Geary, who I’ve never once spoken with in all the years I’ve covered his hospital system.

Out of Their Depths

Freese Decker and her PR minions strike me as way out of their depths dealing with the Teamsters, whose leaders are quite savvy at press relations and social media. Freese Decker is prone to issuing disingenuous and tone-deaf employee communications, such as feigning that she was influenced by the teachings of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a memo disclosing she had fired 400 workers.

King championed worker rights and was a die-hard union supporter with close ties to the Teamsters.

Nursing is an extremely stressful profession, and the pressures worsened during the pandemic as nurses were forced to put their own lives in jeopardy to treat Covid patients. Even before the pandemic, nurses were 18 percent more likely to commit suicide compared to individuals in the general population, according to a 2021 study published by JAMA Psychiatry. The suicide risk of female nurses is 70 percent higher than female physicians.

There has been a nationwide surge of union organizing among nurses, and a growing willingness to strike. As reported by MedCity news, there have been at least 13 notable instances of nurses voting to strike so far in 2023.

Vergos, one of Corewell’s union organizers, says she and her colleagues are confident their union drive will succeed this time. Notably, the strongest supporters for a union are veteran nurses like herself with decades of experience.

“Those of us who have been around for a while are in fear of the integrity of our profession,” Vergos, 57, said. “We’re tired of not having a say.”

Vergos says the union drive has received considerable support from nurses working for all the Metro Detroit hospitals.

Corewell management has gotten wind of the union organizing activities. A Corewell manager told me they heard there was a well-attended union organizing meeting earlier this week and said that training was being prepared on how to rebuff the Teamsters efforts. This week a sign appeared in a nursing resource office disparaging the Teamsters.

“The Teamsters are overwhelmingly a trucking and warehouse union,” the sign admonishes. “The organizers aren’t nurses and aren’t talking about the issues unique to nursing.”

The sign is yet another example of the cluelessness of Freese Decker and her management team. The push for a union is driven by very experienced Corewell nurses and the Teamsters have the strong backing of nurse anesthetists serving Corewell’s most prestigious Metro Detroit hospitals, whose patient safety advocacy is well known and widely respected.

I asked my Corewell management source whether they thought the Teamsters union drive would be successful.

“I really do think so,” the source said.

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