Equitas Health workers hope new CEO won’t impede union contract

As the members of Equitas Health Workers United move into the final stages of contract negotiations, questions are being raised about incoming CEO David Ernesto Munar.
Equitas Health on E. Long St.
Equitas Health on E. Long St.Andy Downing

When Breann Smith joined her Equitas Health coworkers in voting to establish a union in August 2022, she understood the path toward a contract could be long and winding. 

But more than 18 months later, and with a contract still not in place, she said she might have underestimated just how deliberately the process could move. “It’s been even slower than I thought it would be,” Smith said via Zoom in early March. “Some of the bargaining sessions have been fun and lighthearted and good. But a handful have been rough, where things got more argumentative.”

This was particularly true of sessions in which the workers pressed for written language designed to establish more direct communication with the Equitas board, communications Smith said are currently restricted to email – an ask that has taken on more urgency for the workers in the wake of Equitas hiring incoming CEO David Ernesto Munar. 

For the past decade, Munar served as president and CEO of Howard Brown Health in Chicago, exiting the nonprofit in February amid ongoing negotiations with its union, which formed in 2022. Those negotiations have been tumultuous, at times, with Howard Brown Health Workers United staging multiple strikes while accusing the LGQTQ-affirming health organization of bargaining in bad faith

"Howard Brown Health Workers United is disappointed that, after committing dozens of unfair labor practices, making questionable financial decisions, and 16 arduous months of bargaining, David Ernesto Munar resigned without seeing our negotiations through or making amends for his past actions,” Howard Brown Health Workers United wrote in a statement provided to Matter News. “We hope that he plans to act more justly at Equitas, starting with bargaining fairly with Equitas' unionized workers."

In January 2023, Howard Brown workers staged a three-day strike to protest the organization’s decision to lay off 61 employees in the midst of contract negotiations. The union filed a claim in response, and a National Labor Relations Board ruling found merit in the claim, which led to all 61 workers being offered their jobs back, with 24 accepting the offer. 

Equitas’ decision to hire Munar has created spirited debate among the members of Equitas Health Workers United, though Smith said she’s approaching the incoming CEO with an open mind, hopeful that he learned from previous experiences and that he won’t impede the progress that has been made toward a union contract. 

“When I saw [Munar’s] name and did a quick Google search, he looked good on paper,” Smith said. “Then shortly after we started getting contacted by employees from Howard Brown, and specifically Howard Brown Workers United. And they gave us an update on how their bargaining had gone with him and informed us about the layoffs … and all the tactics [Howard Brown] has used on them, which has obviously given us some pause. Still, we’re going to remain hopeful that he has turned over a new leaf when he comes here. And since we’re almost finished with our contract, we’re hoping he’ll let us get some sort of labor peace and not disrupt the progress we’ve made.” 

“Equitas Health fully supports its employees’ right to organize, and has encouraged eligible team members to participate from the start of these discussions,” the Equitas Health Board of Trustees wrote in a statement to Matter New, calling Munar “the right leader at the right time for Equitas Health.” “The Board is confident that as CEO, David will share this commitment to employee rights, fair compensation, and a supportive work environment.”

Breann Smith has worked for Equitas Health for seven years, and when Munar steps into the leadership role in April, he will become the fourth CEO to helm the LGBTQ healthcare provider in that time, and the third since longtime CEO Bill Hardy resigned in October 2021. Hardy, who had served as CEO since 1993, departed just weeks after a Columbus Dispatch report by Erica Thompson in which former employees condemned the “disrespectful, degrading and dehumanizing treatment” of Black employees at Equitas Health, including one occasion where an employee of color was placed in a closet as punishment by a white supervisor, according to multiple accounts.

Coming into the bargaining process, Smith said she knew little of unions. She wasn’t raised in a union household, describing her father as “not pro-union, actually.” And she traced the seed of Equitas Health Workers United to an offhand comment she made at a Pride festival in June 2021 – not long after the company introduced a return to office policy following nearly 18 months of pandemic-driven remote work. “It seemed so unfair, and it was right at this time when all of these other people were starting to unionize and have their voices be respected,” Smith said. “But I made that offhand comment to someone about starting a union, and they said, ‘Yeah, we should.’ And then I messaged a few other people, and they were in. And I was like, okay, this will be easy. Turns out, it wasn’t.”

Roughly 58 percent of Equitas Health workers who voted in 2022 were in favor of forming a union with the Ohio Federation of Teachers, and that bargaining unit includes about 175 social workers, counselors, case managers and other staff. “Social work is a very underpaid position,” Smith said. “And this kind of direct action can help social workers everywhere, which I think is powerful and needed.”

While the process hasn’t been without its bumps, Smith said the union meetings have already proved beneficial, pointing to improved communications across all sites and departments, many of which operated in isolation prior to the start of bargaining. “The way Equitas is set up with so many locations across the state, there were offices where I knew no one in there,” Smith said. “And it’s something we’re still working on, but it’s definitely gotten better. … I’ve been able to meet a whole lot more people, and now I have ways to communicate directly with them.”

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