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Spinning the Hospital Union Election

A bitterly contested election is occurring among employees at three of the oldest hospitals in San Francisco that have continuously provided healthcare since around the mid-1800s. A lot has changed over the last 150 years but surely, we can safely assume, it has been mostly for the better.

One can only hope for a similar outcome in what has to be one of the more dramatic employee controversies ever experienced throughout this long history. It all started a little over two years ago.

Dissatisfied Service Employees International Union (SEIU-UHW) members employed at the three hospitals originally petitioned by a 70 per cent  margin for a union election way back on February 2, 2009. This was only a few days after national SEIU took control of their local union administration and bargaining council, removed their 100-member executive board in its entirety and dismissed worksite elected representatives en masse.

Workers were incensed.

Now, 27 months later, all 755 workers employed by California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC), a Sutter Health affiliate, will have their chance to decide on whether they want a new union to represent them or whether they want to stick with SEIU. Ballots are being mailed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on April 25 with a return deadline of 5pm on May 9. The ballot count promptly begins the next day.

Since it has been over two years, a question arises. Will members recall the original issues in dispute and retain their passionate vision of a democratic union that first inspired them or, is this another example of “justice delayed is justice denied?”

“SEIU pulled out every stop to delay the election because they realized workers were angry with them. Ultimately, SEIU’s unfounded allegations were dismissed by the NLRB,” according to John Borsos, vice-president, National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

NUHW is challenging SEIU in the election and makes other serious accusations against the incumbent union. “After all this time trying to manipulate the NLRB and obstruct employees from voting their free choice, SEIU still does not have strong support among workers so they have had to enlist the help of Sutter to try to remain competitive,” Borsos told me.

“In fact, Sutter is more effectively campaigning for SEIU than SEIU themselves.”

This is all nonsense as is an excuse written by  SEIU in response to my questions: “Like night follows day, every time NUHW has lost a big election they have refused to accept the democratic decision of union members and instead filed frivolous charges, often claiming that management favored SEIU-UHW. They know full well that the charge is bogus.”

Yet, there is some documented history to the allegation of Sutter supporting SEIU against NUHW, suggesting it is not as bogus as some would wish.

Last summer, an administrative law judge actually did find Sutter Health in violation of the law for firing NUHW supporter Beverly Griffith. Substantial evidence was produced showing management colluded with SEIU during the disputed election at their Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, California.

The judge’s ruling stated: “I believe that, having become aware of its bargaining unit employees’ antipathy towards the SEIU-UHW by virtue of their decertification petition and of the NUHW’s nascent organizing efforts amongst said employees, Respondent [Sutter Health] favored the SEIU-UHW and embarked upon a campaign designed to quell its employees’ suspected growing support for the NUHW.”

The judge emphatically rejected Sutter’s defense of its policies: “I reiterate my view that said [company policies] were designed to impede the SEIU-UHW bargaining unit employees from engaging in support of the NUHW.”

Management working with SEIU is nothing new, according to NUHW president Sal Rosselli who made his case to me: “Recently, Kaiser workers finished providing testimony before an administrative law judge of the NLRB and the evidence was overwhelming that SEIU colluded openly with Kaiser to threaten and intimidate workers from joining NUHW.  Now we are seeing the same thing at CPMC, except in this case, SEIU is teaming up with Sutter Health, the most anti-union healthcare company in the state.”

As Rosselli suggested, several employees told me there is indeed lots of evidence the same thing is happening at CPMC.

Helen York Jones has worked at her Food Service job for 42 years and was chief steward and executive board member before the SEIU International removed her from office when they took over in 2009.

“I have seen a lot,” she told me. “But one thing I never saw was any of our union reps getting the access to our break rooms and work areas that management now openly gives to SEIU. Before, security would watch our reps closely and make it hard for them to speak with us at work. This is how they still treat NUHW organizers. But for SEIU, security escorts them all on through just about anywhere they want to go to speak with employees.”

“In fact, the company actually now gives SEIU reps ID badges to walk freely into secure areas. That has never, ever been the case since I started back in 1968.”

Why? I asked.

“SEIU is in bed with management, they get VIP treatment,” 15-year hospital worker Catalino Calonsag, told me. “Bargaining for the 2010 contract was behind closed doors. Our healthcare options were diluted and we lost our job guarantees. Instead, we have only the promises of SEIU and Sutter.”

Not true, SEIU wrote me. “The critics are wrong. The contract at CPMC strengthens contracting out language, includes raises of more than nine percent compounded over three years, and maintains fully paid healthcare benefits.

“CPMC employees…know full well that in SEIU-UHW they won a strong contract with good raises….because the union stood and fought management at every turn to win raises, maintain current benefits, and strengthen job security.”

NUHW’s Borsos, former top hospital division negotiator for SEIU-UHW, rejected this argument. “The 2010 SEIU contract did not strengthen contracting out provisions. In fact, SEIU did not update the side letter that banned subcontracting, apparently invalidating it. From a negotiator’s standpoint, that blunder alone is the functional equivalent of a surgical technician leaving five sponges in a patient. It should never happen.”

The back and forth discussion continues with leafleting, phone calling and even home visits. As irritating as all this activity is for the apathetic among us, it normally would be welcomed by most co-workers as an opportunity to discuss important issues and to increase their common understanding.

But it is not always easy to keep focused on the issues because fear and misinformation so heavily overshadows the whole election. And, here, according to some employees, the company apparently plays no small role.

Management called us into a meeting today, 10-year employee JR Toia told me a few days ago. “They told us ‘we are neutral.’ But, with that being said, they went on about which union to favor in so many words. They said ‘with SEIU, you keep your same contract and raises; with NUHW, there are no guarantees.’

“I spoke up and said ‘you guys are not from the NLRB. Why don’t you have someone from the government come here to speak with us so we can get the facts?’ They conceded that ‘you make a good point, JR’ but they did nothing to correct or qualify what I saw as their bias towards SEIU in the election.”

Amidst all the confusing rhetoric floating around, Ramiro Trevino, Patient Care Assistant for 13 years, summarized the situation for me.

“Some support SEIU because they don’t know them or know anything about unions. Others support them because they fear losing their contract and their raises. SEIU is spreading this false information and Sutter is backing it up.

“I was a union negotiator for years, I know what I read and what I read from management at all levels is that they want us to vote SEIU. Sutter is definitely not neutral. Linda Isaac, vice-president, Human Resources, sent an email saying that if we vote NUHW we will not have a contract and our raises will not be guaranteed. Sutter’s CEO sent a similar letter and managers from housekeeping and other units in the hospital are also saying, more or less, vote SEIU. It is the only way any reasonable person would interpret what they are saying.”

While Sutter “respectfully decline[s] to respond at this time” to my request for a clarifying statement on their role in the election, SEIU did respond. They wrote that “members understand that voting for SEIU-UHW means their contract is guaranteed, and voting NUHW means their contract would have to be renegotiated with no guarantee that they would be able to get back what they have in their current SEIU-UHW agreement.”

However, it is what is omitted and left unsaid by both Sutter and SEIU that many consider so misleading and so damaging to a fair, productive and democratic discussion among employees.

NUHW fills in the blanks in what they term “SEIU’s and Sutter’s joint campaign of distortion” by citing an ironclad provision of national labor law that “employers must abide by the then existing terms and conditions of employment until such time as it reaches an agreement with the new union….” [See NLRB v Katz, supra;R.E.C. Corp., 296 NLRB 1293 (1989)]

And, Borsos emphasizes, “these protections include future wages increases, according to longstanding NLRB law, particularly in the 2001 More Trucking decision.”

The debate continues. But before the winner is actually declared, it is very important in the last few remaining days, at least, that a level-playing field be firmly established for both parties in the election and that misinformation no longer looms as such a big factor. This is something everyone interested in an honest discussion of the issues should be able to expect.

Sutter Health and its affiliate CPMC owe this obligation of fairness to their employees. The disputed questions and the election are that important.

CARL FINAMORE is former President (ret) Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW, and is currently their delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He can be reached at local1781@yahoo..com

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Carl Finamore is Machinist Lodge 1781 delegate, San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He can be reached at local1781@yahoo.com

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