Unions? No thanks.: St. Charles employees are part of national trend pitting worker vs. worker | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon
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Unions? No thanks.: St. Charles employees are part of national trend pitting worker vs. worker 

An upcoming vote decides if St. Charles employees will stay a 600-member service or SEIU.

The bulletin boards inside a staff entrance to the St. Charles Bend hospital tell a story of a workplace divided.

Some flyers scream out "Vote No" in bold red letters, others appeal for a "yes" on bright canary yellow paper.

They all refer to an upcoming vote to determine whether employees, including certified nursing assistants, housekeepers and dietary department employees, should remain in the 600-member service employees international union, or SEIU, they formed last January.

It was a close vote then with union supporters winning by just a handful of ayes, a result that was unsuccessfully challenged by the hospital's administration. In the year since, union leaders and management have wrangled over a contract. They've had 30 work sessions and are still only about halfway through the items they must negotiate. That impasse has opened the door for a rare "decertification" vote that allows employees to reconsider whether they want a union at all.

If the "no" votes prevail in the election which will happen by secret ballot at the hospital on March 21, the union will be caput. If a majority of the employees vote yes, it's back to the drawing table on the contract.

Given that St. Charles is the largest employer in the region, the case is a bellwether for private-sector employee unions, which have seen their member numbers dwindle in recent years. On the ground, it's turned into a bitter fight pitting coworkers against each other and their employer.

Both sides are alleging shady tactics in the run up to the election.

Union supporters say hospital managers are waging a full court press against the bargaining unit, telling employees multiple times a day to vote no. The hospital confirms it has hired a labor relations firm to help managers have these conversations legally, but workers say they are receiving veiled threats from bosses that they should vote no in the same conversation that their job performance is being critiqued. In doing so, they're walking a fine line, say labor advocates. If managers directly threaten repercussions for supporting the union, they open the hospital up to labor violations that could trigger another vote, said Linda Davidson, a regional representative of the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees union elections.

Hospital management and staff members who don't support the union, say organizers from SEIU are harassing employees at their homes, following workers to their cars repeatedly and showing up in restricted areas of the hospital.


It all seems a little extreme for our hometown hospital. In fact, it's a pretty typical scene in contemporary America, where political elections are won by just a few percentage points and the dialogue is vitriolic. When it comes to organized labor, what's happening at St. Charles is even more closely aligned with a national trend of workers moving away from strong support of unions, even as American wages, particularly those in the service sector, have seen little or no growth.

"We were about thirty-five percent in 1955 to 1960," said Lewis and Clark Law School professor Henry Drummonds, one of the leading labor and employment law professors on the West Coast, about the percentage of workers in the private sector represented by unions. "Now we are down to just seven percent."

Instead of joining or forming a bargaining unit, many workers are choosing to go it alone with their employers, believing it's best for them in the long run.

"Unions have simply not been able to sustain the support of the employees they represent," said Drummonds.

In place of unions, America has shifted more toward legislation that protects the rights of individual workers through laws like the Family Medical Leave Act, Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules and laws governing overtime and minimum wage, said Drummonds. The average person has simply begun to feel that all these laws already protect them, so what good is a union?

"This is a complete paradigm shift," he said.

Why people are moving toward this individual approach and away from unions is a hotly contested issue among legal minds and social scientists at think-tanks who look at labor trends for clues as to how the country as a whole is changing.

The trend is likely attributable to politics rather than economics, said Drummonds, because those employees that do get together in a collective bargaining unit generally gain more in the workplace, he said.

"When you don't have that collective bargaining power, through time, you would expect the working conditions for employees to deteriorate," said Drummonds.


That's exactly what's happened at St. Charles, said Zack Roberts, a dietary employee who's worked at the hospital for 11 years and is on the union's bargaining team. A merit-based raise system was instituted a few years back rather than cost of living increases for all employees, all employees took a five percent reduction in pay during the recession in the form of working fewer hours, and employees must now pick up a larger chunk of their health care costs, said union supporters and St. Charles management.

In addition, employees have no idea where they stand financially compared to their peers because of the lack of a standardized pay scale and raises. And, a few years ago, some housekeeping jobs were outsourced. That was the final move that mobilized union supporters who feared their jobs, too, could be shopped out.

"This is about having protection and having dialogue," said Joanne Kennedy, one of the leaders of the union who works in the pharmacy department and has been with St. Charles for nearly 30 years.

Union supporters said they want a bigger voice in choices that affect patient care, too.

In recent years, staffing of shifts at the hospital has been reduced. Upper management at St. Charles said this was, in part, because the patient volume was lower during the down economy - people put off medical treatment because they couldn't afford it. That meant fewer people were needed on staff.

But workers say staffing was reduced disproportionately, leading to what they believe is a decline in the quality of patient care that is obvious to hospital employees, said Kennedy.

"Bells that are ringing more. Patients that are calling out that they better get some help real quick or they are going to have an accident," said Kennedy, who is a pharmacy employee. "People that are in tears because they can't cover their patients. I have seen this, and it happens every night."


Hospital administrators said they feel strongly there is adequate staffing on the floors of the hospital and note that the hospital has received high rankings on a national level for quality care of patients.

CEO of St. Charles Bend, Jay Henry and Director of Human Resources, Rebecca Morgan also said the hospital offered raises to employees last year even after the union was formed when it was under no obligation to do so because of the lack of contract. In addition, the health care and benefits package for the hospital is excellent in the Bend market for people with similar jobs who do not work for the hospital, and the hospital makes a concerted effort to keep health care plans affordable for staff, they said.

Lila Shook, an eight-year veteran who works directly with patients as part of a lift team that helps nurses move patients with mobility issues, said the union is simply off the mark and trying to scare people. She wears a large badge reading "Vote No." It's clipped to her shirt in prominent view as she works.

"They promise things they can't follow through on," said Shook, of the union. "What can they really do?"

She and friend Ron Keller, who works in housekeeping, say they are happy with the merit-based raises they have received in recent years. They are happy with their benefits package. And they're happy with the way they are treated by management, they said.

They also point out that the hospital pays for employees to get more education. They said they like the hospital's earned time off program. And Shook said she's seen the hospital do everything it can to keep the lift team from being laid off, even during the lean years of the recession.

Finally, the idea of paying dues to the union on a monthly basis frustrates them.

"I would rather put money into a house payment, my family or even to help out a friend, than to have them hold my hand," said Kellor.


Whether the union is ratified again or it fails, union leaders believe that even the slow contract negotiations from the last year will have changed the workplace for the better.

For instance, Roberts said the upper managers attending the negotiations had previously been disconnected from the concerns of the working staff of the hospital.

"They've been pretty genuinely surprised to hear a lot of the stories of people being afraid, of department managers that kind of act like lone rangers," said Roberts.

He believes the union is the reason that upper managers have quickly addressed worker issues in the past year, but hopes even if the union is voted down that the lines of communication which have been opened up to the top ranks of the hospital's hierarchy will remain open.

Anti-union employees are less optimistic about what the future holds after the divisive rhetoric and highly charged political atmosphere of the past year.

"It's been hostile," said Keller, the housekeeping employee. "Friends are becoming enemies."

It's the American political landscape playing out in the halls of Bend's largest employer, and whatever the vote on March 21, the outcome will rely much less on the dynamic of management versus worker and more on the increasing divisions in the working class itself.

As Lila Shook said of the election, "It's not them against us, it's us against us."

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