SEIU wins wave of union elections at nursing homes

It was a week of victories for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503. Union elections came to 11 Oregon nursing homes Nov. 17-21, and at 10 of them, workers voted to unionize. In most cases, the union won by overwhelming margins: 2 to 1, 3 to 1, 6 to 1, even 40 to 1.

That’s 500 new union members, and this is just the first wave. Elections are scheduled at six more nursing homes this month, and are expected at 17 other nursing homes early next year, with the potential for up to 2,000 workers to unionize.

The speed of the campaign and the success rate owe a lot to two words: employer neutrality.

The nursing homes belong to four companies, and those four companies belong to an industry association known as the Oregon Health Care Association (OHCA). And the OHCA committed late last year to a partnership with SEIU — in order to win at the Oregon Legislature what the OHCA couldn’t win on its own: a kind of funding for nursing home care that would be safe from Oregon’s government revenue crisis.

It started with a lunch meeting in February 2002 between OHCA director Jim Carlson and Leslie Frane and Rich Peppers of SEIU. Frane, Local 503’s executive director, had experience organizing the nursing home industry for an SEIU local in Connecticut.

Rather than organize Oregon’s nursing homes with traditional methods, Frane proposed a wholly different approach: The union would throw its political clout behind a nursing home care funding plan at the Oregon Legislature, and in return OHCA member companies would agree to neutrality and a simpler, speedier process to hold elections and negotiate a first contract. It meant union organizers would be able to campaign for the union without the conflict that often characterizes union drives.

But first they’d have to win at the Legislature.

The federal government matches state spending on nursing home care for those who need but can’t afford it. But the state’s recession-depleted coffers meant funding for every program would be at risk.

The solution nursing home backers came up with was so simple, one would think it’s illegal. But it’s not. The state would levy a special per-bed tax on nursing homes, dedicating the revenue to pay for nursing home care. Then the federal government would match it.

“It was not anyone’s first choice on how to fund services,” Carlson told the Northwest Labor Press, “but compared to taking steep cuts in services, it was a good idea.”

Union and industry lobbyists got to work talking to legislators, and SEIU’s political organizers were given access to nursing home workers to build them into a political force.

At first, their proposal was added to the Legislature’s budget bill, but when they realized that could mean it would be shot down if voters disapproved, backers added the proposal to a stand-alone measure, House Bill 2747. It passed.

Starting in 2004, the state will levy a provider tax on all nursing homes to create a Nursing Quality Assurance Fund, which will be matched by federal government funds.

Carlson said politically it was a very effective alliance because the two organizations have good relationships with different elected officials.

Now came phase two of the plan: a union campaign at the nursing homes, governed by a commitment to neutrality. The neutrality would work both ways: The union agreed not to speak ill of management, and management agreed not to speak ill of labor.

“It takes a lot of the contentiousness out of the process,” Carlson said.

The terms of the partnership deal extend to almost every aspect of the union drive: how elections would be conducted, at which sites, and when, and how and when bargaining would take place.

Four companies — the largest players in Oregon’s nursing home industry — would take part in the partnership experiment: Prestige Care, Marquis Companies, Avamere Health Services and Evergreen Oregon Health Care.

Rather than go through the National Labor Relations Board, the two sides would opt to have elections supervised by the American Arbitration Association.

Where a majority of workers choose to go union, bargaining is supposed to take place on an expedited timetable. Key provisions like union security, management rights and a no-strike clause would be agreed to in advance, and disagreements would be subject to interest-based arbitration, in which an independent arbitrator selects one or the other proposal.

In the first round of elections, workers voted in the union at: Porthaven Health Care Center in Portland; Evergreen Hillsboro Health & Rehabilitation Center and Hillsboro Rehabilitation and Specialty Care in Hillsboro; Mountain View Rehab and Living Center in Oregon City; Linda Vista Care Center in Ashland; Springfield Marquis in Springfield; Windsor House Health and Rehab in Salem; Lebanon Rehab and Specialty Care in Lebanon; Willow Brook Terrace in Pendleton; Milton- Freewater Health and Rehab in Milton-Freewater.

At Hope Village in Canby, the outcome of the election won’t be known until several ballot challenges are resolved by an arbitrator.

Both sides hope that the union movement will actively promote those nursing homes that go union and that union pension funds — and pro-union seniors — may favor unionized facilities.

Carlson said other companies in the industry will be watching in the next four months to see how well the partnership works; if the result seems reasonable, other companies may agree to neutrality as well.

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.