AFSCME organizes staff at Hermiston's only hospital

HERMISTON - When Operating Engineers Local 701 and Electrical Workers Local 112 called for help in their closely-fought union campaign at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, the Oregon AFL-CIO Organizing Committee got six union organizers to volunteer their time - including three from Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

That act of solidarity paid dividends for AFSCME. The union has 225 new members, and hospital workers at Good Shepherd Medical Center in Hermiston have a union.

Workers at the hospital voted 140 to 44 on Aug. 8 to unionize with AFSCME in units that cover technicians, dietary, licensed practical nurses, maintenance, housekeeping, medical records, and other support staff. With registered nurses at the hospital already represented by Oregon Nurses Association (ONA), that leaves only 20 workers at the hospital without a union - clerical and business office workers, and AFSCME is interested in organizing them as well.

AFSCME had been pursuing several leads at the hospital. But the campaign really took off in early April, when union staff came out to help Operating Engineers Local 701 win a union election at Washington Demilitarization in Umatilla, which has the Army contract to store and incinerate chemical weapons. AFSCME organizers spent a three-day weekend visiting workers in their homes talking up the benefits of unionizing. Before they left town, they also held a meeting with half a dozen workers at the area's only hospital.

"It didn't take long for them to figure out that a union was going to be a good way to go," said AFSCME organizer Aaron McEmrys.

"At first, there were a lot of quiet phone calls and secret e-mails and smuggling documents and lists in and out of locked buildings. It was pretty James Bond," he said.

In less than two months, about 70 percent of the workers signed on to the union effort. On the morning of June 24, about 35 workers gathered on their breaktime, donned green ribbons (AFSCME's color), and marched into the office of the hospital's top administrator to ask that the hospital sign a "fair-election pledge."

"It was quite a trumpet blow," McEmrys said. "I've never seen a manager turn so white. He took one look at the situation and literally ran into his office."

Housekeeper Linda Storment recalls the tone as excited but dignified, not rowdy. "It was really exhilarating," she said. "We spoke out for something we believe in."

The employer counter-attack began soon after.

In the month before the election, management sent out a dozen anti-union letters. Each of the hospital's 12 departments held three mandatory-attendance meetings, at which hospital vice presidents would show anti-union videos and tell workers why going union was a bad idea.

"They had all these meetings," McEmrys said, "but they never listened."

"It pushed people over the edge. A lot of fence-sitters said 'That's it.' The anti-union campaign became a walking comical illustration of why workers needed a union in the first place."

Now comes the challenge of bargaining a first contract. Workers want pay raises, better health benefits, and respect on the job. McEmrys said AFSCME plans to coordinate bargaining strategy with the ONA nurses.

September 6, 2002 issue

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