North Bay Business Journal: Healthcare unions clash at Memorial Hospital

NewsOctober 12, 2009

Memorial Hospital center of spat between SEIU, new group; election in balance

SANTA ROSA—With a six-year unionization effort at stake, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital has become a battlefield in a rivalry between national labor giant Service Employees International Union and a fledgling group of its former Northern California leaders.

In April, local hospital workers were on track to schedule a union election under a petition with the new group, the National Union of Healthcare Workers. But at the final hour, SEIU intervened and stalled proceedings.

The National Labor Relations Board granted SEIU’s request to also be on the ballot, but then the union’s officials twice filed complaints that further delayed the vote for five more months. During that time, SEIU organizers flocked to the Santa Rosa hospital to campaign, according to interviews with several workers.

Now, in a break with normal policy, a top regional labor official said last week that, despite the outstanding SEIU allegations, the federal agency intends to schedule an election following an Oct. 19 hearing.

“It is a very unusual situation, and normally the election would be blocked until we decided on the merit of the charges,” said Joseph Norelli, San Francisco regional director for the National Labor Relations Board.

The NLRB has dismissed many such complaints filed by SEIU in other elections involving the competing union, officials said. And Mr. Norelli said the board has decided it is not going to wait until the complaint in Santa Rosa is resolved to schedule the election.

Meanwhile, the North Bay Labor Council, which is not affiliated with either union, asked SEIU in a Sept. 29 letter to step down from the campaign, saying, “Memorial workers have chosen NUHW as their union.”

SEIU California spokesman Steve Trossman said the letter is based on “misguided” information.

Four days ago, workers on the Memorial organizing committee hand-delivered a similar request to SEIU’s Santa Rosa office.

“We are appalled at SEIU’s last-minute interference into our union election. … You may disagree with the union we have chosen, but it is our decision,” said the letter signed by close to 75 workers.

“[We] were forced to endure a five-month delay because of SEIU’s legal maneuvers. During the delay, nearly 200 of our coworkers were laid off. … In this economy, workers at Memorial cannot afford to be without a union, but that is exactly what you have accomplished.”

It was SEIU’s Northern California branch, United Healthcare Workers West, that actually launched the initial union campaign at Memorial about six years ago, but workers switched their petition to a smaller union in January when SEIU’s executive board instigated a “trusteeship” of the local office.

Mr. Trossman accused the new union of misrepresenting itself in order to gain signatures for the petition submitted in April and that a majority of workers favor SEIU.

Memorial Hospital officials said in an e-mail that, “at St. Joseph Health System-Sonoma County, we remain committed to letting employees choose for themselves whether they wish to be represented by a union, and if so, by which union.”

The region-wide competition between the national union and its former staff stems from a shift that began more than a year ago.

In January 2008, SEIU executives commenced efforts to “restructure” its California representation, setting in motion an increasingly heated schism with the region’s local leaders.

The clash in thinking culminated in a trustee hearing at the beginning of 2009, where the SEIU executive board accused the California branch leaders of inappropriately siphoning millions into a nonprofit.

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, who was appointed to serve as hearing officer by SEIU President Andrew Stern, ultimately determined that trusteeship of the local branch was warranted, but “solely on [the local branch’s] obstinance to the restructuring, not on [financial] misconduct,” according to court documents.

The trusteeship went into effect Jan. 27, and the next day about 100 leaders quit and formed NUHW. The change happened just as Memorial workers were ready to file for an election and, according to one organizing committee member and the North Bay Labor Council, SEIU abandoned efforts in Santa Rosa.

“When the union was trusteed, they literally left us in the lurch. They came in, shut down our Santa Rosa office, fired our elected officials, really destroyed the union as we knew it. NUHW was kind of the phoenix rising from ashes,” said 24-year Memorial Telemetry Technician Nancy Timberlake, who is on the organizing committee for the hospital.

The recent letter from the North Bay Labor Council signed by President Jack Buckhorn and Executive Director Lisa Maldonado said the group was “left with the clear impression that the campaign at Memorial was not a priority for the new leadership of SEIU.”

Employees said in the last few weeks SEIU organizers called home phone numbers and approached workers door-to-door, prompting Memorial to send a memo saying it did not disseminate workers’ information. SEIU officials did not confirm the home soliciting but said it is a common practice of union campaigning, including efforts by NUHW.

“The home visits haven’t gone over very well. The SEIU organizers said things like ‘we are the union chosen by the hospital’ and not taking no for answer,” said 13-year Memorial Radiology Technician Jack Nicholson, who is on the worker organizing committee.

Mr. Trossman said the union was less active in organizing efforts between January and April because the new trustees were left with a “ransacked” office and little information. SEIU at the time was pursuing a lawsuit charging Northern California leaders erased, damaged and stole thousands of documents and equipment. Subsequently, the new union returned millions of pages of information in May and June, but a preliminary injunction issued in July said the group was still withholding documents.

Source: North Bay Business Journal