SEIU 49 scores Oregon’s biggest private-sector win in decades

Oregon’s biggest private sector union organizing victory in decades came through this month at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, and it was a close one. In a Jan. 5 election, support workers at the hospital voted 255 to 251 to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49, but that didn’t include 34 uncounted ballots cast by workers whose eligibility to join the union was in dispute. After the two sides reached agreement on the challenges, the National Labor Relations Board counted 22 of those ballots Feb. 2, and the final tally was 267 to 261.

Several other unions have campaigned at the hospital over the years. But the tide seemed to turn in the last year or so after changes in management practice.

Ken Daniels, who works at St. Charles sterilizing hospital equipment, was the worker who made the first phone call to Local 49. Daniels spent many years at a local sawmill as a member of the Woodworkers Union, but the mill closed, and eventually he took a job at the hospital. Daniels said things were different when he began at St. Charles 20 years ago: A nun, Sister Catherine Hellmann, was CEO of the Catholic-owned hospital, until 2000.

“Sister Catherine looked after the little people,” Daniels said. “After she left, things deteriorated.”

In two of the last three years, workers got no raises even as upper managers got bonuses. A dozen housekeeping jobs were outsourced.

“People were afraid to speak up,” Daniels said. “Some housekeepers complained, and management told them if they didn’t like it, they had a two-inch-high stack of job applications.”

After Daniels called Local 49, the union assigned organizers and helped turn out community support as workers organized themselves and got a campaign rolling.

Joanne Kennedy, inpatient pharmacy technician with 30 years at St. Charles, said job security concerns were a primary factor motivating support for the union.

“We’re the only hospital in the area, so if you’re in a medical career and you don’t work here, you have to leave the area,” Kennedy said. And with no grievance procedure, and conditions worsening in many departments — pay cuts, dozens of layoffs, shortstaffing, workload increases — Kennedy said unionizing made sense as a vehicle to put workers back in the hospital’s business plan.

The campaign was clandestine at first, but came out into the open when pro-union workers began gathering signatures on a petition calling for the hospital to recognize the union. Over 65 percent signed, but the hospital declined to voluntarily recognize the union, so the union filed for an election.

That’s when an anti-union campaign kicked into high gear. Managers held anti-union meetings on work time, had one-on-one conversations with workers, and mailed letters to workers’ homes. Workers were told they were not allowed to talk about the union on work time, but the rule was only enforced against union supporters.

Some union supporters wavered, but others showed courage by signing a public “Vote yes!” petition. In the end a bare majority came out in favor. Now pro-union workers hope to win over those who voted “no,” even as some anti-union workers are rumored to be planning a decertification drive. [Legally, workers could vote again in a year whether to keep the union.]

The last time a private sector union election was held for a unit of such size in Oregon was a 1995-1996 campaign by United Steelworkers among 1,700 workers at Precision Cast Parts in Portland. But that campaign fell victim to an employer anti-union campaign that included numerous violations of federal labor law.

At St. Charles, the next step is negotiating a first-ever union contract for the 69 support and maintenance classifications that make up the bargaining unit. By law, the hospital must bargain in good faith with the union. Local 49 has sent out a bargaining survey, and workers are nominating members of the union bargaining team. No bargaining sessions had been scheduled as of press time.

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