Gilroy Dispatch: Saint Louise workers picket for new union

NewsApril 8, 2009

By Sara Suddes
Brian Del Bono, an emergency department technician with O’Connor Hospital, pickets to be part of a new union in the rain outside of Saint Louise Regional Hospital Tuesday. (Photo by: Lora Schraft, Staff Photographer)

Saint Louise Regional Hospital workers donned raincoats and picket signs and sloshed through the drizzle to make their case: “We demand respect. We demand an election now.”

After almost a year of working without a contract, union members at the hospital want to ditch their current union, the Service Employees International Union – United Healthcare Workers, and join an Oakland-based breakaway union that was born earlier this year out of unrest within SEIU.

About a dozen picketers chanted slogans and waved signs stamped with the red and white logo of their new union, National Union of Healthcare Workers. Though they are not officially members of NUHW – a union they feel will restore their voice and bring control back to the workers – healthcare professionals at Saint Louise filed a petition in February to quit SEIU and join NUHW, joining the ranks of about 95,000 other California workers who have done the same.

However, “SEIU has mounted an increasingly desperate effort to stop workers from leaving, stalling elections with legal challenges, working with employers to threaten and discipline union members at work, and sending union staff into healthcare facilities to try to stop workers from organizing with NUHW,” according to a NUHW statement.

Union organizer Colleen Fewer leads a chant with a bullhorn in front as sterile processors Adella Talaver, center, and Eva Aguayo join in support.“They won’t let us vote,” said Susan Reddell, a respiratory therapist and union steward for SEIU. But instead of wearing SEIU’s signature purple and gold, Reddell sported a red NUHW jacket. Like her fellow picketers, Reddell was waiting on the stalled vote to officially become a member of NUHW.

Of the 160 SEIU members at Saint Louise, a majority are for the switch, Reddell said, a sticker reading “Let us vote” stuck to her chest.

“The workers are trying to leave SEIU because it was corrupt,” said Sadie Crabtree, a spokeswoman for NUHW. “And the employers are not supposed to be a part of that decision. It represents a conflict of interest. If your boss wants you to be in a particular union, it’s probably not the right union.”

But Saint Louise spokeswoman Jasmine Nguyen said the hospital has stepped back and will remain neutral in the struggle between the two unions.

“Saint Louise has not supported either group and we do not intend to take sides in the dispute,” she wrote in an e-mail. “NUHW is not certified by the National Labor Relations Board, and is not recognized as the collective bargaining representative of any Saint Louise associates. That is still to be decided by the NLRB, not Saint Louise. Saint Louise is required by law to recognize SEIU-UHW. It is not a matter of favoring one labor group over another. It’s a matter of law and we will meet our legal obligations.”

In a letter distributed to Saint Louise patients, the hospital explained that the protesters were associated with “a group calling itself” NUHW, which “does not represent any employees of Saint Louise.” The letter went on to explain that its employees are represented by SEIU and that there is no dispute between SEIU and Saint Louise.

“It’s insulting,” Reddell said of the letter, as she stood alongside several Saint Louise employees. “They’re denying their workers. We feel very strongly that the hospital has sided with SEIU. We are being aggressively intimidated by the management at Saint Louise.”

Reddell said the administration at Saint Louise has threatened to arrest workers handing out NUHW literature in the hospital’s cafeteria.

Although the Gilroy Police Department responded to a call from Saint Louise requesting assistance in an incident involving aggressive union representatives, no arrests were made, Sgt. Jim Gillio said.

“We went out to mediate the situation without having to take law enforcement action,” he said.

An SEIU representative did not return phone calls by press time.

Source: Gilroy Dispatch