Six years of litigation came to an end when the union UNITE HERE and Sutter Health settled charges of defamation, trade libel and intentional interference with prospective economic relations. Sutter Health had accused the union of sending postcards to potential patients calling into question the cleanliness of the hospital chain’s linens.
In 2003, UNITE HERE—which represents more than 2,500 employees of Angelica, an industrial laundry that provides linens to hospitals, including Sutter Health—started a campaign to organize Angelica’s commercial laundries.
The union investigated Angelica’s facilities and allegedly found evidence that the company had delivered dirty, stained and foul-smelling linens.
UNITE HERE sent its report to Angelica’s customers, including Sutter Health, but the hospital chain refused to meet with the union to discuss the labor dispute with Angelica. As a result, UNITE HERE mailed a postcard citing the alleged uncleanliness to current and former patients of Sutter Health. The postcard also went to women of childbearing age living near Sutter facilities, urging them to protect newborns from potentially infectious conditions by choosing to deliver their babies at other hospitals.
In 2005, Sutter Health sued UNITE HERE and won a $17 million jury award, which a state appellate court later overturned due to faulty jury instructions. The parties then agreed to mediate the dispute to avoid a new trial. Following mediation, UNITE HERE agreed to pay Sutter Health $6 million, which the hospital chain says it will invest in patient care.
As part of the settlement, UNITE HERE also agreed to apologize for sending false and disparaging postcards. In the apology, UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm stated that the postcard was “offensive and in poor taste.” Wilhelm continued, “On behalf of UNITE HERE, I express our union’s sincerest apologies to Sutter Health and to its dedicated health care professionals for the postcard that was sent in 2005 to women residing in the Northern California communities served by Sutter Health affiliated hospitals.”
Wilhelm also stated that “the union has no intention of sending any such communication regarding Sutter Health or its affiliates in the future” and that the union leaders who oversaw the mailing of the postcards are now not with the union.