Quiet Deal Leads to Bitter Fight in Ohio Hospitals

Accusations of sweetheart deal-making and union busting flew thick and fast in mid-March as the Service Employees (SEIU) and the California Nurses Association fought over SEIU’s bid to quietly gain wall-to-wall representation at nine Ohio hospitals.

SEIU had attempted for years to organize about 8,000 workers in the Catholic Healthcare Partners facilities with little success. But in late February the Catholic hospital chain filed for a snap union election, to take place in two weeks. Workers were notified by mail of the election, and told to call a hotline if they had questions about the union.

At some of the hospitals no organizing committee existed, and no contact with workers had taken place in years, according to Colleen Gresham, an Ohio nurse and top supporter of SEIU. She discovered that SEIU was formally seeking to represent her when her employer, Cincinnati’s Mercy Mt. Airy hospital, sent her the election notice.

“We were actually surprised by the secret vote,” Gresham said. “We didn’t know it was coming.”

Gresham was among 15 nurses and other hospital workers who signed a March 12 open letter to CNA’s Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro, saying her “bullying staff…spread terrible lies for no other reason than to destroy what we worked so hard to build.”

As part of this controversial election agreement, both SEIU and the Catholic hospitals agreed not to campaign prior to the vote. “To avoid the conflict and negative tension typically caused by organizing campaigns…neither managers nor union representatives will approach you or even answer questions if you approach them,” read the letter to staffers at St. Regis hospital in Lima.

‘COMPANY UNIONISM’

The California Nurses Association, whose nationwide partner group National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) is active elsewhere in Ohio, said having the employer file for election amounted to company unionism, and threatened to establish a dangerous precedent of employer-union collusion.

Peggy Vaughn, a nurse at Mercy Western Hills hospital in Cincinnati who also signed SEIU’s open letter, said the charge of collusion insulted her years of volunteer campaigning.

After the hospital unleashed an anti-union drive when organizing began three years ago, “it became apparent that if we were going to get anywhere we needed to work from the top of the organization down,” Vaughn said. “In the last year-and-a-half, there hasn’t been much door-to-door contact. I would tell people, we’re working on a different level to make sure we could have an election without the intimidation we saw at the beginning of the campaign.”

Catholic Healthcare Partners said the deal with SEIU was a template it sought to apply elsewhere. Other unions were unable to contest the Catholic hospital elections.

DeMoro said SEIU’s Ohio agreement would teach hospitals to shut out combative unions, so CNA dispatched reinforcements to join its existing Ohio operation. Four nurses and organizers per hospital leafletted and called nurses, urging them to vote down SEIU.

Katrina Howard, an NNOC organizer, was arrested for trespassing at a Lima hospital after security guards said she stepped on company property when talking to a nurse. The hospital then took out a restraining order against NNOC. But SEIU staff were permitted access to the hospitals, Howard said.

‘VICIOUS ATTACK’

SEIU called the California nurses’ response a vicious attack on a fellow union, and cancelled the nine elections four days after CNA began its campaign. “When CNA came in disrupting work, they left a bad taste in people's mouths about unions,” Gresham said.

Michelle Mahon, a Cleveland-area nurse and NNOC supporter who campaigned at two Springfield hospitals, said she met only a handful of nurses who backed SEIU among the roughly 250 contacts she made.

“Unions have a bad rap in some of the towns,” Mahon said. “People feel like they’re corrupt and you get nothing for the dues. When you don’t have a strong base of support you’re undermining labor organization for everyone. The philosophy should not be a union at any cost, it should be to have strong support and a democratic process.”

Gresham argued that the disruptive approach of unions like the CNA doesn’t appeal to many health care workers who separate concerns about their job from the actual workplace. Having a union, she said, “is always going to be beneficial in the end.”

SEIU also noted that CNA had itself signed an election agreement with Tenet Healthcare four years ago in California that traded restrictions, like agreeing not to strike until 2010, for organizing jurisdiction of Tenet nurses. CNA says its deal permitted other unions to enter its elections, and protected nurses’ rights to publicly criticize their employer over patient conditions, unlike SEIU’s partnership accords.

The novel election in Ohio—filed for by the Catholic hospital chain—resembles a new procedure the National Labor Relations Board is scheduled to soon enact. Under this “RJ” petition, the union and employer jointly file for an election to take place within four weeks. The union would not have to prove any support among workers.

Current rules mandate 30 percent minimum support to file for an election, leading to fears the new process could reward unions that conform to managment's desires. “Maybe it’s a way to say, if you want to get cozy, go get cozy,” said Ross Runkle, a retired law professor at Willamette University.