North Bay Business Journal: Memorial Hospital election set after long union battle

NewsNovember 9, 2009

By D. Ashley Furness, Business Journal Staff Reporter

SANTA ROSA, NORTHERN CALIFORNIA—The last-minute scheduling of a union election for about 600 Memorial hospital workers came as a bitter-sweet surprise last Monday morning, even within the context of a high-pitched battle between two Northern California unions.

Three days after a labor official said he did not expect the parties to agree on election terms any time soon, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, Service Employees International Union and the National Union of Healthcare Workers all signed a ballot agreement.

The document was finalized minutes before a hearing on the matter was scheduled. The groups had convened in private for about 45 minutes before the meeting, agreeing to schedule the vote Dec. 17 and 18. It is possible that either union could file an unfair labor practices complaint and further delay the vote.

Three Memorial organizing committee workers who attended the canceled hearing were overjoyed to finally have a vote scheduled but said the weeks until the December election will mean an onslaught of campaigning.

“We were all surprised. I fully expected one of the unions to seek a delay. [SEIU] had delivered all sorts of information suggesting a strategy to litigate unless changes were made to the bargaining unit, which would have posed an enormous time sink to the process,” said Tim Peck, assistant to the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in San Francisco, where the hearing was meant to take place.

SEIU officials had also said during a North Bay Labor Council meeting Oct. 28 that the election wouldn’t happen until January, but a spokesperson for a group said the statement was based on speculation.

The six-year unionization saga of hundreds of Memorial nursing assistants, respiratory therapists and other health care-related technicians’ has been one fraught with tactics to obstruct the process, but oddly the most recent six months of delays were not the work of an employer but one of the unions.

“If it wasn’t for SEIU, we would have had our election scheduled back in April, and I hope the [election] agreement this morning means they finally got the picture from the community that we are clearly tired of their attempts to delay our vote,” said organizing committee member and eight-year Memorial imaging technician Christine Hoex.

Supporters of the SEIU effort were not available to comment.

In April, it appeared Memorial workers would finally have an election after the labor board approved a petition filed with NUHW. But on the eve of the election, SEIU charged unfair practices by the competing labor group, effectively stalling the vote in time to also get on the ballot.

In September, NLRB officials made an unprecedented decision to move forward with the election without resolving the unfair labor practices charge, but the process was further stalled when SEIU asked that NUHW’s attorney be disqualified. The labor board and a state superior court judge rejected the request.

“We can deal with [SEIU] on the ballot, and we can deal with them knocking on our doors and calling our homes, we just want them to stop delaying the election,” said Memorial oncology care partner Melissa Bosanco, who also attended the Nov. 2 hearing.

On Sept. 29, the North Bay Labor Council, which is not affiliated with either group, sent a letter saying, “Memorial workers have chosen NUHW as their union,” and asked that SEIU stand down from the election. A few days later, 75 Memorial workers delivered a letter to the local SEIU office with a similar request.

The NLRB could not release the exact number of workers that signed either union’s petition, but NUHW was required to garner at least 30 percent of workers to be approved for an election, and SEIU needed “a showing of interest,” or at least one signature.

“This whole case has been highly unusual since the get go,” Mr. Peck said.

“Prior to this, cases like this deal with actions brought on by the employer, but again we’ve never seen this kind of situation where you have one union essentially competing with a break-away union composed entirely of its former officials.”

NUHW was formed by about 150 former leaders of the Northern California branch of SEIU. The stewards, who were elected by workers, resigned from the mega union after they were removed from leadership following a trusteeship of Northern California offices. The takeover was implemented in January following ongoing resistance to structural changes implemented by SEIU national, according to trusteeship hearing documents.

Since the division, NUHW has won three elections in Northern California covering about 400 employees and filed about 360 petitions potentially covering 100,000 workers, according to union officials.

Source: North Bay Business Journal