BEND, Ore. - A complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board against St. Charles Health System by the Service Employees International Union Local 49 could delay a union decertification vote by about a month -- and depending on the outcome, could scrap the vote entirely, an official said Tuesday.
The roughly 600 members of the union, voted in narrowly early last year, had been scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether to oust the union, which has been unable to negotiate a first contract with St. Charles Medical Center-Bend. At least 30 percent of workers have to sign a petition to request such a vote, said NLRB spokeswoman Nancy Cleeland in Washington, D.C.
But last Friday, SEIU officials filed a unfair labor practice charge against St. Charles, alleging, among other things, that the hospital "has interfered with, restrained and coerced its employees" and "discriminated against them because of their union or other protected activity."
"Management has really -- it's really breaking the law and creating a very hostile environment for its workers," Felisa Hagins, SEIU Local 49 political director, said Wednesday.
The accusations range from terminating workers for pro-union activities to surveillance and intimidation of workers to bad-faith bargaining.
"At first I was surprised with the blocking of the vote," said Chris Buck, an ER technician and one of nearly 600 service workers at the hospital. "In my opinion, I think we have the majority to decertify the union."
"I love my job at St. Charles," Buck said. "I've always loved my job at St. Charles."
Buck said he's never had any issues with upper management or not being paid overtime, and sees no need for a union.
"To me, we have always had a voice," Buck said. "It just depends on if you're willing to stand up and use that voice without that third party present."
At the largest private employer in Central Oregon, the union flap has sparked some sharp divisions the community is noticing.
"I think it's taken a lot of time and energy on both the hospital part and the employee part," said Bend resident Linda Burgel.
Buck says his voice has been drowned out by the pro-union side. He said when he would put up a flier of how he felt next to one of the SEIU fliers, it got torn down.
"To me, it just seems like I was trying my opinion was being nullified -- and that just fired me up and inspired me to actually speak up now," Buck said.
Despite the lack of a contract, SEIU officials believe most workers are on their side.
"i think we have shown a strong majority," Hagins said. "I think workers continue to step up to keep and show their majority."
The complaint also claimed three workers were terminated last week "because of their union activity" and that the hospital "has refused to bargain in good faith" with SEIU.
The hospital has denied such claims and called Friday's filing "disappointing."
Cleeland said an NLRB investigator was on site at the hospital Tuesday to interview those involved.
Cleeland disputed the interpretation the union gave in the headline of a media advisory Tuesday that said the NLRB had found "sufficient cause to block (the) upcoming election."
Instead, she said, regional officials told her the union's allegations "are sufficient to potentially impact the election, and therefore it is appropriate to block the election" for the time being, to investigate the SEIU's claims.
The NLRB is handling the matter as "a priority investigation, because it is holding up an election," Cleeland said.
If evidence is found to substantiate the claims, a hearing will be held and employees called to be interviewed.
"Depending on the outcome, either they would ask the union to withdraw the charge and go ahead with the election, or determine the petition was faulty and dismiss the decertification petition," Cleeland said.
How long that will take "depends on what they find and how cooperative all the parties are," the NLRB public affairs officer said. "The target is to do it within five weeks."
Also, if the investigation backs up the claim the hospital dismissed workers over their union activities, "we could order (the hospital) to reinstate the people, putting things back to where they have been. We cannot assess fines or penalties, only order reinstatement and back pay."
St. Charles Health System leaders said they received notification Monday from the NLRB of the indefinite delay.
?We are disappointed by this decision, but we will work with the NLRB over the coming weeks as it investigates these charges in an effort to reach a quick resolution,? said Jay Henry, CEO of St. Charles Medical Center-Bend.
?More than anything, we want our caregivers to have the chance to voice their opinion on the matter of representation by the SEIU in a fair election,? Henry said in a brief news release.
Friday's filing was characterized by the SEIU as a challenge to alleged underhanded actions by the hospital. Bend?s largest private employer, meanwhile, labeled the complaint an unfortunate ?blocking? move on a decertification vote the union was likely to lose.
The hospital and the 600-member bargaining group have been negotiating without much success for a first contract for more than a year, since the initial vote brought in the union by a margin of just a handful of votes. Another bargaining session is set for April 3-4, the union said.
In a recent information sheet sent to community members, the union claimed, among other things, the hospital had hired a consultant to train and coach managers on site how to persuade workers to vote against the union. The SEIU sheet claimed pro-union workers have been told they cannot talk about the union on hospital property, including on their breaks, lunch or before or after their shifts.
Here are Friday's news releases, in full, from SEIU and the hospital:
ST. CHARLES MANAGEMENT CHARGED WITH BREAKING LAW
WITH INTENT TO DERAIL UPCOMING ELECTION
(Bend, Oregon) On Friday, The St. Charles Bargaining Team and SEIU filed Unfair Labor Practices against St Charles, contending that the hospital and its team of consultants had engaged in repeated illegal and coercive tactics with the intention to confuse and intimidate employees into voting to decertify the union.
A decertification election, initiated by a minority of workers at the hospital was scheduled for March 21st.
?We have demonstrated that there is a strong majority support for our union here at the hospital, over and over again. However, in the last few weeks, it has become clear that there was no way to have a fair and democratic election in the environment management created,? said Joanne Kennedy, Pharmacy, and Bargaining Team Member.
This is not the first instance in which St. Charles Bend has been charged with unfair labor practices. Earlier this year, SEIU filed other unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB has already issued a complaint for the charge stating that the employer unlawfully failed to bargain over healthcare changes and unilaterally increased costs for employees. A hearing is set for June.
?The actions taken by St. Charles are really disappointing; especially by an employer that is a community asset. I know caregivers at the hospital were ready to again demonstrate their majority support for SEIU, but we cannot stand by while St. Charles is clearly violating the law. We are requesting a federal investigation by the NLRB? said Meg Niemi, President, SEIU Local 49.
The elected bargaining team at St. Charles Bend will continue negotiations and has set dates for April 3 & 4, 2012. They will move forward to settle a contract that improves patient care, creates good jobs, ensures job security and puts an end to contracting out jobs to the lowest bidder. Nurses who are represented by ONA at the hospital have a contract that expires at the end of June of this year.
SEIU is the largest and fastest growing health care union in the country, representing over a million health care members and over two million members overall. SEIU Local 49 represents more than 10,000 members including certified nursing assistants, phlebotomists, laboratory assistants and other health care workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington.
Who is St. Charles Health System?
With medical centers in Bend, Prineville and Redmond, St. Charles Health System employs over 3000 employees, making it the largest private sector employer in Central Oregon and with St. Charles Medical Center Bend being one of the most profitable hospitals in the state.
Who are the workers of St. Charles Medical Center Bend?
We are 600 front-line care providers. We are Certified Nursing Assistants, Emergency Room Techs, Monitor Watchers, Phlebotomists, Admitting Clerks, Housekeepers, Food Service Workers, Pharmacy Techs, Operating Room Assistants and more. Some of us perform direct patient care, and others provide vital services, from purchasing equipment to preparing patients? food to cleaning the rooms they heal in. Every one of us contributes directly to the health and well-being of patients.
What is the timeline?
January of 2011 ? Majority of Caregivers cast a ballot in favor of forming a union with SEIU Local 49
May of 2011 ? Hospital workers begin bargaining
November of 2011 ? Community members join local leaders and caregivers at the hospital for a Candlelight Rally in support of hospital workers
December of 2011 ? A majority of hospital caregivers sign an open letter to management asking the hospital to do the right thing.
March of 2012 - A minority of workers file a decertification petition
March 16, 2012 - Unfair Labor Practices have been filed with a request to delay the election because of a hostile work environment
The NRLB Challenges Process
? SEIU 49 represented members at St. Charles have the right to file charges at the NLRB regarding any issues that are illegal. As the legal bargaining agent SEIU Local 49 has filed six charges that cover issues including unilateral changes to health care, surveillance of caregivers, coercion, and Illegal termination for union activity.
? The NLRB will continue to investigate both the previous and recently filed charges. Typically the charges will be combined. If the NRLB finds merit in the charges, as they have regarding the health care charge, they will issue a complaint.
? A hearing will be set with an administrative law judge who rules on the complaints. Several rulings are options to attempt to change the hostile work environment. However, none of those options include fines, or management changes.
What?s next in Bargaining?
We will continue to move forward to settle a contract that improves patient care, creates good jobs, insures job security and puts an end to contracting out jobs to the lowest bidder. We have set bargaining dates for April 3rd and 4th.
St. Charles Response to SEIU charges
St. Charles Health System is not surprised that the Service Employees International Union has filed unfair labor practice charges attempting to block the decertification election planned for March 21.
?We believe the majority of our caregivers do not support the union and we are disappointed that this blocking charge may delay our caregivers from a free election where they can voice their opinion,? said Jay Henry, CEO of St. Charles Bend.
St. Charles will defend itself against all charges the SEIU has filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
?We have spent the past year bargaining in good faith with the SEIU and have done nothing but act in the best interest of our patients and our caregivers,? Henry said. ?We find it unfortunate that the SEIU has chosen to not only take this action, but that they have made this private issue a community matter and have inconvenienced our patients as they seek treatment at our facility.
St. Charles would also like to reassure our patients that as always, providing the best possible health care to our community is our top priority.
About St. Charles Health System
St. Charles Health System, Inc., headquartered in Bend, Oregon, owns and operates the St. Charles medical centers in Bend and Redmond, leases and operates Pioneer Memorial Hospital in Prineville and provides management services for Mountain View Hospital in Madras. SCHS is a private, not-for-profit Oregon corporation and is the largest employer in Central Oregon with more than 3,000 caregivers in Bend, Redmond and Prineville. In addition, there are more than 350 active medical staff members and nearly 200 visiting medical staff members who partner with SCHS to provide a wide range of care and service to our communities.