In 2010/2011, workers at St. Charles Hospital in Bend, Oregon, including Housekeepers, food workers, CNAs, secretaries, and others came together to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49 to improve their conditions and strengthen their voice. It was the largest union organizing victory in Oregon for 30 years. This victory held great promise for not only St. Charles’s service workers, but all workers in Central Oregon and health care employees statewide.
On November 1st of this year, workers voted to decertify SEIU Local 49 in a vote of 334 to 212. Why this bitter reversal in less than two years?
To start to answer this question it is necessary to understand how the laws in this nation favor employers at the expense of workers’ unity.
To win legal recognition of a union, by itself, is an exercise in jumping through bureaucratic hoops and being set up for employer intimidation. A vote alone is not enough. Even if a super majority signs cards to join, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) requires that another election must be held six weeks after these cards are turned in. This gives the employer a big window to begin to intimidate employees with captive meetings and other tactics where the employer can discourage a yes vote.
In spite of this, workers’ at St. Charles stood strong and won legal recognition by a narrow vote in favor of joining SEIU Local 49. However, the biggest challenge was only starting. Workers needed to negotiate a contract with the administration of St. Charles who were determined not to cede the slightest control of their power.
The strategy of the St. Charles administration was simple. Show up to the bargaining table to fulfill their legal requirement, but refuse to negotiate in any meaningful way. After a year they would be free to start a decertification campaign and, if all goes well, get rid of the union.
Using dollars that could have been spent on patient care and improving the wages and benefits of their employees, St. Charles hired the second largest anti-union consultant in America. No doubt, these efforts were supported by hospital CEOs across the state.
They conducted an aggressive campaign to find ways to fire union leaders and targeting pro-union employees for intimidation. Thirty percent of St. Charles service workers signed a petition to have a decertification vote. This minority was enough to set the wheels in motion to set up an NLRB election to get rid of the union, whereas, it takes a majority of workers to have an election to vote in a union.
So over the top were the St. Charles administration’s efforts that they flagrantly broke labor law. The union filed several Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges with the NLRB and the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. As a result, the calendar date to have a decertification vote was put on hold.
This did not, however, make the administration any more flexible at the bargaining table. Because the process of investigation and judgment is incredibly slow and the penalties are weak for ULPs, they treated all this as a minor annoyance. Meanwhile, the employees continued to be subject to the pressure of the St. Charles anti-union campaign, and saw no satisfactory progress in bargaining, which seemed to be going on with no end in sight.
Even with a likely favorable ruling regarding the ULPs, a decertification vote would eventually have to take place. Consequently, the union decided to lift the hold on the vote calendar date because of the ULPs.
When the votes came in, it was clear that the majority of the St. Charles service workers were exhausted by the intimidation as well as frustrated and decided to decertify. A legal system tilted in favor of big business combined with the St. Charles administration’s intransience and deep pockets won the day for corporate greed. SEIU Local 49 has not yet decided whether to challenge the results.
But, as the old saying goes, the battle might be lost, but not the war. It is necessary to draw the lessons of this defeat and adjust tactics in order to win.
When the staff of SEIU Local 49 got a call that the workers of St. Charles Bend needed their assistance to pull together and resist the greed of their employer, the union did the right thing and threw considerable effort into the cause. Even with the decertification, the workers at St. Charles are in a better position today to conduct collective concerted action than they were before SEIU Local 49 jumped in.
St. Charles has four hospitals and is by far the largest employer in Central Oregon. They have no serious competitors in the region. They can afford to care nothing about public opinion, only the bottom line.
Consequently, though the hospital in Bend is their largest, the administration is in a strong position to resist a union organizing campaign at only one of their facilities. They have the resources to do so with a monopoly of health care services in Central Oregon and anti-union consultants willing to provide their services for a fat fee.
A union’s strength relies on its ability to organize the majority of workers on an industry wide basis. A union organizing drive at St. Charles would be strongest if it could build organizing committees at all four of its hospitals.
In addition, unions are at their strongest when they act as a social movement and link community needs to the needs of its members. Such links, if seriously built, have the potential of choking the employer’s profits if the union goes on strike with massive community support on the picket lines. The employers know this and are more likely to negotiate a fair contract in order to avoid such action if they see the growth of such a development.
At this stage, immediately focusing on a campaign to re-win union representation at St. Charles Bend alone may not be the best step forward. Rather, it would be better to adjust organizing tactics by encouraging the organizing of a social movement that would take collective action on the issues of health care and workers’ justice in Central Oregon. It would include working members at all of St. Charles facilities as well as community members and former employees. It is this kind of solidarity that is at the heart of the union movement and will facilitate the winning of formal union recognition at St. Charles as part of a larger struggle.
A potential model would be OurWalmart. This organization was initiated and supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) union though OurWalmart’s members decide on their own actions. While the first efforts to organize workers into the UFCW failed at Walmart, the growth of OurWalmart has greatly helped future victories. It is because of the growth of OurWalmart that workers have been able to go out on strikes at numerous Walmart facilities for the first time in the company’s history. These workers went on strike to protest unfair labor practices such as retaliation against workers for taking collective action, which is legally protected even without the formal recognition of a union. As a result, they have Walmart on the defensive and have been able to win improvements to their conditions. The experience of such victories through sticking together is teaching Walmart workers about the potential of winning more if they form a union.
The service workers at St. Charles Bend already have a strong organizing committee. They could act as a springboard for a more broad based community organization to promote a culture of health care worker/community solidarity in Central Oregon. This will encourage future union organizing efforts at St. Charles on a wider level.
While labor law favors the employer in this nation, there are always ways to overcome this obstacle. The decertification of SEIU Local 49 at St. Charles Bend is a setback, but often out of setback come new opportunities.
Mark Vorpahl is an union steward, social justice activist, and writer for Workers’ Action – www.workerscompass.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.