Local news

Hearing set for hospital-labor fight

Union says Deaconess, Valley Hospital used unfair practices

A labor fight pitting Deaconess Medical Center and Valley Hospital and Medical Center against their unionized health care workers spills into a triallike hearing next week.

The National Labor Relations Board will argue in front of an administrative law judge in Spokane next week that Community Health Systems engaged in unfair labor practices in dealing with the Service Employees International Union Local 1199NW.

The allegations include complaints that the hospitals unilaterally changed health and dental coverage plans that shifted more cost to the union’s 1,100 employees while delivering poorer service. The union alleges CHS made a similar move when it lowered retirement benefits.

Other allegations pushed by the SEIU include charges that CHS engaged in a union-busting campaign that attempted to entice members to resign membership, revoke dues authorizations and file decertification paperwork. The union also says CHS laid off employees without first attempting to bargain with the union.

The hospitals have a tempestuous history with unions. While under the ownership of Spokane-based nonprofit Empire Health Services, the registered nurses and technical employees of the two hospitals were among the last in the state to unionize.

When the union did organize employees, it attempted to collaborate with the hospitals to overcome financial struggles.

And yet on the eve of the sale of the hospitals to Tennessee-based CHS in October 2008, Deaconess’ registered nurses voted out the union. It was a stark rejection of union tactics, which included an advertising campaign suggesting doubt about the quality of patient care at Deaconess.

Hospital management and nonunion workers rallied to Deaconess’ defense and upset nurses cast votes against SEIU.

Relations have been tense since, and the two sides remain far apart on substantive contract issues.

Chris Barton, secretary-treasurer and lead negotiator for the union, said CHS has refused to engage in any sort of bargaining for months. She calls it part of a CHS pattern of dealing with organized workers at other hospitals it has purchased.

Deaconess and Valley officials did not return phone calls requesting an interview Friday.

The administrative law judge’s decision will be sent to the full NLRB, which can accept, reject or modify the judge’s decision. While the board lacks the authority to issue fines, it can order that affected employees be paid for losses if CHS is found to have engaged in unfair labor practices.

Either side can appeal the full board’s decision to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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