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Geez, I hate to bad mouth the Red Cross. It may not be a perfect organization, but its aims are noble. And Joan Suarez of Jobs with Justice, had similar reservations when a Red Cross worker came to her with information about problems that Red Cross workers had been suffering. Indeed, the worker himself hesitated, despite serious concerns that he’d had for a couple of years.

He was a truck driver who approached the Jobs with Justice Workers’ Rights Board because of concerns about blood donor safety. He convinced Suarez to attend a meeting in Columbia of union members from across the nation employed by the Red Cross. There she heard his concerns echoed by workers from every corner of the country.

To make sense of their concerns, you have to understand that the Red Cross has two branches. The business side collects blood, sells it to hospitals, and uses the proceeds to fun its disaster relief activities, as well as to contribute to a variety of non-profit agencies. Union members have been slow to report problems they see in the blood collection business partly out of fear of being fired and partly because of reticence about harming the reputation of the Red Cross.

What they complained about was that the organization has cut down on using nurses and phlebotomists to collect blood and substituted other employees–like the truck driver who approached Suarez–giving them only cursory training. Then it requires long work days and insufficient breaks, which leads to fatigue and mistakes. And by the way, Suarez pointed out, those collecting blood, though they may not be licensed, are still given badges to wear that say “Nursing Staff.”

Teresa Cavazos, a phlebotomist of 11 years with the Red Cross in Tucson, Ariz., says she sometimes works 16- or 18-hour days.

Sometimes, you don’t get a break, if it’s that busy. They’ll give it to you at the end; they’ll say take 10 minutes before you clean up and put things away. That’s where I find it questionable on the part of the Red Cross. You’re not able to concentrate as clearly as you would, so you tend to make mistakes. It’s not safe for you; not safe for the donor.

It’s not just the Red Cross employees who have noticed the problems. The organization has been the subject of a consent decree about its safe handling of blood and has had to pay $21 million in fines for not obeying the decree promptly. Nor is the blood collection issue the only contentious one.

In recent years, the organization has been plagued with bad publicity, including fundraising and sex scandals, criticism over its Hurricane Katrina relief efforts and a revolving door in the executive suite that has seen 10 chief executives in 12 years.

One last black mark for the Red Cross is that it is determined to keep unions at bay.

Ten unions represent only 2,500 of the 35,000 Red Cross employees. The organization was hit with 212 unfair labor practices charges by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) between 1996 and 2007. Contracts at seven locations have expired as long as 11 months ago with no new agreement.

It is only natural in these circumstances to wonder whether the employees who are raising a stink are just trying to influence labor negotiations. They point out, though, that there have been no strikes, that they have been more than patient with their employer and only want to see the Red Cross business practices improved.

Once Joan Suarez became aware of the problems at the Red Cross and convinced that the workers were not reporting them as part of a ploy in union negotiations, she assembled a five person panel of respected community figures to hold hearings in St. Louis. They reached the same conclusions as she had and so set about finding a credible way of disseminating the news. They settled on asking retired Post-Dispatch labor reporter Philip Dine to investigate. His first question–the expected one–was whether these complaints were part of a bargaining strategy. Once he was convinced that such was not the motivation, he agreed to research the situation and issue a report. He interviewed the panel members and the workers. He tried to interview the Red Cross, but executives there refused to take his calls.

Dine’s twenty page report reached this conclusion:

Few national institutions have a prouder name or a more storied history than the American Red Cross. But many frontline blood workers see the Red Cross as an employer that is increasingly determined to cut expenses and increase revenues, even to the potential detriment of donor safety, employee wellbeing and the security of the nation’s blood supply.

Be aware that the Red Cross CEO is appointed by the president. The current CEO, Gail McGovern, is a Bush appointee. Suarez aims, for the present, to conduct a campaign asking people to contact McGovern to put pressure on her to improve the business practices at the Red Cross. If that campaign doesn’t get results, then perhaps down the line Jobs with Justice will start pressuring President Obama to replace McGovern.

We will hope it doesn’t come to that. First, let’s start with an e-mail campaign to the Red Cross itself. Click here (and then click in the right hand column where it says “Click here to take action as another user”). Or tweet a message here.