June 19, 2008 in City

Deaconess workers to vote on ousting union

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Hundreds of registered nurses and technical workers at Deaconess Medical Center are trying to dump their union.

The move comes even as the community-based nonprofit hospital is about to be sold to a Fortune 500 corporation with headquarters outside Nashville, Tenn.

Richard Ahearn, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, said the federal agency will conduct a decertification election Tuesday. The polls close at 7:30 p.m.

There will be two elections, one for the 550 registered nurses and the other for about 225 technical workers, he said.

Elections were called after at least 30 percent of the 775 members signed petitions to boot the powerful Service Employees International Union 1199NW.

“The union has been putting a bad light on our hospital,” said Reba Hendrix, a respiratory therapist who spearheaded the union decertification effort.

She concluded the union was damaging Deaconess after SEIU ran an ad in The Spokesman-Review questioning the hospital’s commitment to patient safety and care in the wake of 130 job cuts, including many certified nursing assistants.

“They tried to strong-arm the hospital to hire back laid-off employees with that atrocious ad,” she said.

The timing of the decertification vote is puzzling, said SEIU spokeswoman Linnae Riesen.

“When the organization you’re working for is about to be sold to a big for-profit hospital is exactly the time when you need union representation the most,” she said. “You don’t want to lose the benefits of your contract now.”

Registered nurse and union backer Patti Parra is trying to blunt the decertification effort by telling co-workers that the union contract will ensure proposed Deaconess buyer Community Health Systems Inc. recognizes seniority and maintains wages.

She said the union has never opposed the sale, which is under review by state health officials and is the subject of four public hearings next Wednesday and Thursday.

“The union is trying to look out for the interest of the employees and the community as whole,” Parra said.

Unions tried for years to organize the nurses at Spokane’s second largest hospital. It didn’t work at first, in part because Deaconess management made sure wages and benefits were competitive with those at Sacred Heart Medical Center, where registered nurses have long been represented by the Washington State Nurses Association.

That scenario started to change earlier this decade as unions ramped up organizing efforts in Spokane, seeking to replenish their ranks with more health care workers as manufacturers slumped and left thousands of traditional union workers unemployed.

The union campaigns coincided with financial struggles at Deaconess.

The hospital closed units, laid off employees and then cut employee wages by 9 percent.

SEIU’s organizing drives succeeded at both Deaconess and sister facility Valley Hospital and Medical Center in the spring of 2003 with one important exception: The hundreds of registered nurses at Deaconess rejected membership by 14 votes.

The NLRB ruled that summer that Deaconess administrators had interfered in the election, and it ordered a new election.

A year later the nurses voted by more than 120 votes to join SEIU, with promises to work closely with Deaconess leaders to bolster the hospital’s finances.

Deaconess hired a turnaround executive and the finances brightened.

The gains were short-lived, however, and the board concluded that the century-old hospital system should be sold to Community Health. The deal calls for a $100 million investment in construction and technology over five years.

The sale would also establish a new charitable foundation to capture an estimated $84 million in sales proceeds after debts are paid.

Community Health operates 116 hospitals in 28 states. Several are unionized.

According to the company’s financial statements, it has more than 82,000 employees. About 2,600 are union members.

Hendrix called the numbers reassuring.

“This is a company that takes care of its employees,” she said.

Deaconess management declined to take sides in Tuesday’s election, said spokeswoman Christine Varela.

“We believe our employees have the right to support their union and freedom not to support their union,” she said. “We will respect their decision.”


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