SW Washington Medical Center pays 'hired guns' to fight union organizing


VANCOUVER, WA -- Southwest Washington Medical Center has brought in a heavy hitter to try to squelch a union organizing drive by some 1,600 employees.

Management Sciences Association Inc. (MSA) has a reputation in the health care industry for "consulting" hospitals on how to weaken organizing drives. Its services don't come cheap either -- ranging from $250,000 to $1 million, said representatives of Portland-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49, which had been contacted by employees at the 360-bed medical center to help them form a union. There are a potential 900 persons in the bargaining unit.

Some 700 nurses are talking with the Washington Nurses Association and about 20 maintenance workers are talking with Operating Engineers Local 701.

According to employees of the privately owned and operated hospital, a union has been voted down twice in the past 13 years.

At the heart of the employees' concerns is a $1 million reorganization project known as "Transformation." The plan -- which was implemented at the same time the hospital began taking patients from Kaiser Permanente due to hospital closures in Oregon -- initially included staff cuts and reassigned job duties to create teams of registered nurses and certified nursing assistants to take care of patients.

Workers and the union say Transformation has increased workloads and replaced higher-skilled, higher-paid workers with less-skilled, lower-paid staffers and cut back full-time hours to part time.

"MSA has a nasty track record of busting unions and union organizing drives," said Steven Ward, director of organizing at Local 49.

In addition to Southwest Washington Medical Center, MSA is fighting unions at three hospitals in New York, one in Iowa City, Iowa, and one in Kansas City, Missouri. Several years ago MSA helped turn back union drives at Legacy's Mt. Hood Medical Center in Gresham and at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene.

According to the union, the company doesn't talk directly with employees, but rather provides "intensive training" for supervisors, who then talk one-on-one with staffers.

Ward said employees' personal information is obtained and categorized into six psychological profiles so that supervisors know how to best approach workers in order to "create confusion, distrust and fear of the union."

Themes from the MSA anti-union handbook are already being spouted. Jeff Robert, a hospital vice president, told the Columbian newspaper, "We've always enjoyed a direct relationship with our employees, and our desire is to continue a direct relationship with our employees. A union is an independent third party. That creates another layer of complexity."

Ward said the hospital is afraid of workers having a voice and is willing to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars "to the real third party" to keep it from happening. "That money should be used to improve patient care and improve workersç wages," he said.

In other organizing news, 120 phlebotomists at Kaiser Permanente will vote this month on whether or not to join SEIU Local 49. An election date had not been set as this issue went to press. Earlier this year 70 lab technicians at Kaiser said "yes" to Local 49.

The union will soon file for an election at Skyline Building Maintenance in Monmouth, where 25 employees work for the company, which is under contract at Western Oregon University.

June 24 has been declared "A Day To Make Our Voices Heard" by the national AFL-CIO to illustrate the advantages between union and non-union workplaces.

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June 5, 1998 issue

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