Gateway Health closes day after union election date set

For pro-union workers at BHC-Pacific Gateway Hospital in southeast Portland, nearly everything that could go wrong in a union campaign did go wrong: Mandatory anti-union meetings, two pro-union workers fired, a two-month delay by the government agency responsible for conducting union elections, and on June 7 - one day after a union election date was set - the company announced that it would permanently close the hospital.

The closure means at least 80 employees are jobless, and the local mental health network in Multnomah County is short 66 beds used to house psychiatric patients.

The union campaign was integrally linked with the hospital's other problems. Chronic understaffing and lack of security safeguards were chief among the issues that led employees to contact Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Employees (OFNHP), an affiliate of the Oregon-American Federation of Teachers; these two conditions were also factors in the April 1 police shooting of Josà MejÁa Poot, a Mexican immigrant who suffered from epilepsy. Poot's death prompted an investigation by the government agencies that oversee mental health, which ordered the hospital closed in mid-April. The hospital was allowed to reopen one of its three wards May 18 - the intensive care unit, but continued to have problems with regulators.

"Their primary motivation has been profit," said registered nurse Wendy Olson, who supported a union at Pacific Gateway. "It's been profit over care."

In the midst of its local troubles, the hospital's owner, the 28-hospital Behavioral Healthcare Corporation chain, was sold to Welsh, Carson, Anderson, & Stowe, a New York investment company in early May.

David Glenn, organizer with OFNHP, said the hospital took advantage of the closure, in numerous ways. At the same time that the company was mailing scare-tactic anti-union literature to workers' homes, it alienated them further by ordering them during the closure to use up their accrued paid leave, which workers had saved to use for vacations, instead of collecting unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, the union campaign suffered delay at the hands of the National Labor Relations Board. Having worked to organize employees since late February, OFNHP filed April 20 requesting a union election, but the agency didn't set an election date until June 6, after it dealt with company objections about the definition of the bargaining unit. The vote was to be a mail-in ballot counted July 3. Pro-union Pacific Gateway workers met for perhaps the last time June 8 for a sort of farewell meeting.

"We're all really grieving the loss of our co-workers and all the memories of all the people we've helped there over the years," Olson said.

June 15, 2001 issue

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