Chain-owned Clackamas pet hospital votes narrowly to unionize

A group of 113 workers at the Northwest’s biggest veterinary hospital voted July 5 on whether to unionize, but the results are too close to call.

The vote to join International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 5 was 54 to 53 at VCA Northwest Veterinary Specialists, but the company challenged the right of four workers to cast ballots, and it could take several weeks for the National Labor Relations Board to decide on those challenges.

The Clackamas pet hospital, located at 16756 S.E. 82nd Drive, is part of the massive 800-hospital VCA chain. VCA was a publicly traded corporation until last year, when it was bought for $9.1 billion by an even bigger company, Mars, Inc.

Mars — privately owned by America’s third richest family — is the famed and almost entirely nonunion candy maker that makes M&Ms, Skittles, Dove Chocolates, and Mars, Milky Way, Snickers, and Twix chocolate bars. But it also has a less well known petcare division, which owns eight pet food brands, including IAMS, Pedigree, and Whiskas, plus three other veterinary chains besides VCA (Banfield Pet Hospital, BluePearl, and Pet Partners).

Mars’ acquisition of VCA brought its holdings to 2,000 pet hospitals. The Federal Trade Commission, responsible for enforcing anti-trust laws that are supposed to prevent monopolies, allowed the acquisition on condition that Mars sell 12 of its clinics to three other national chains.

Veterinary medicine was once an industry made up of independent veterinarians and clinics. Today it’s rapidly consolidating into the hands of several giant national companies, of which Mars is by far the largest.

ILWU spokesperson Craig Merrilees said in the wake of the sale to Mars, workers at VCA’s Clackamas facility were concerned about training, advancement, and turnover, and contacted ILWU for help with unionizing.  Merrilees said company management opposed the unionization effort, brought in union avoidance consultants, and held meetings in the workplace to discourage employees from voting to unionize. The proposed bargaining unit consists of all non-professional employees, including veterinary technicians and assistants, kennel assistants, and client service reps. Assuming they prevail, they’ll be the third pet hospital workforce to unionize, ever, all in the last year.

  • At a VCA unit in San Francisco, a similar group of employees joined ILWU in a 56-to-20 vote on April 5.
  • And at a Mars’ BluePearl subsidiary in Seattle, workers joined the National Veterinary Professionals Union (NVPU) in a 48-to-4 vote on May 31. NVPU formed last year with the goal of making veterinary support staff positions into a sustainable, life-long career choice. Merrilees said ILWU is working in partnership with the fledgling union.

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