Today SEIU member Veronica Tench is testifying at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in support of the Board's recent proposed rule change to union elections. Her story is the story of many (too many) workers around the country and is the perfect representative for our union at the hearings.
In early 1998, Veronica, and other hospital workers at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles felt it was time that they had a voice on the job. St. Vincent's technical staff--the employees who assist physicians and nurses with patient care--wanted to improve critical patient care issues, specifically the number of staff assigned to patient care units per shift, so they started organizing themselves to form a union.
On June 24 of this year - thirteen years after they began organizing - 400 workers finally were able to vote to join SEIU-UHW. For more than a decade Veronica and her co-workers faced a fierce anti-union campaign that had delayed their efforts. Today, St. Vincent is a different kind of employer and agreed to a fair and timely process for employees to hold an election.
Back in 1998, organizing at St. Vincent began among the hospital's technical staff, the employees who assist physicians and nurses by assessing patients' health, performing clinical testing, analyzing results and communicating with patients and physicians. These jobs require close attention to each patient, something all staff wanted to do to the best of their ability.
Technical staff had become increasingly concerned by the number of technical staff assigned to patient care per shift, which strained their ability to provide high quality care for their patients. At the time, registered nurses at St. Vincent had a union and could improve nurse-patient ratios, enabling them to spend more time with their patients.
Feeling that they were stretched too thin, Veronica and her co-workers were inspired by the nurses' success and wanted to win some of the important patient care improvements that they had achieved. On January 5, 2000, after months of intense organizing and employer opposition, workers filed a petition for an election with the National Labor Relations Board for the bargaining unit of 100 technical staff employees. The election was scheduled for February 17, 2000.
Veronica said, "Even before we filed the petition, the hospital administration quickly began an anti-union campaign. Management published 'Say No to the Union' fliers, brought in more security guards to keep out union organizers and the hospital hired outside lawyers to hold meetings about why we shouldn't join the union. Since my co-workers and I felt we couldn't talk freely at work, we would have our meetings outside of the hospital."
"We tried to move forward, but hospital management stopped us from every angle. The most extreme tactic management used was to subcontract out the hospital's respiratory care services just 12 days before the union election as a way to prevent employees from voting. They were still working in the St. Vincent building, but now they suddenly worked for a different company. As a result, the hospital claimed they were ineligible to vote."
"The RC therapists were about 25 percent of our 100 person bargaining unit and were among the strongest supporters of the union and the core of our organizing efforts. By preventing them from voting, the subcontracting decision completely undermined everything we had worked for. They knew there was no way we could win the election without votes of workers in one of the hospital's largest units."
"We filed an unfair labor practice charge because we thought this decision violated our rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Ultimately, St. Vincent was found to have violated the federal law, but only in 2007, after more than six years of litigation."
"Through those six years, while multiple Board decisions and a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion were being argued and written, we waited, unable to vote in a fair election. Although the Ninth Circuit and the final Board decision eventually found that St. Vincent's decision to subcontract the RC therapists had violated the NLRA, by then it was too late to help us. We had to start organizing all over again from the beginning."
For another four years, Veronica and her colleagues still wanted to organize, but didn't want to face the same intimidation and delay they had before.
By early 2011, things had changed at St. Vincent. Management held a meeting with staff and told them about their right to organize and said that the hospital would not interfere with their efforts if they chose to do so. The hospital even gave workers a room to hold their meetings. With renewed hope, technical staff began to organize again.
Starting in April 2011, the new organizing effort took place in a much calmer environment. Without interference from the hospital, workers petitioned for a new election and were able to vote within 14 days. In June 2011, they won the election and joined SEIU-UHW.
Veronica said, "This community needs quality jobs. Improving staffing can improve patient care and create good jobs. Now, we'll be able to make sure that experienced caregivers stay and continue to provide for our families. But it shouldn't have taken more than a decade for us to be able to vote for our union, so I'd like to make sure future workers have a more reasonable and fair process available to them."
"Since we started to organize 13 years ago, three of the respiratory therapists passed away and it's a shame they won't be able to see how we kept moving forward to win a voice at work to we could better serve our patients."