By Don McIntosh
In a real-life demonstration that every vote counts, hospital support staff at Providence Portland Medical Center have won a union by a single vote — after an on-again, off-again campaign that goes back 20 years.
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49 lost the initial tally by 374 to 376 when the vote was held last year on December 12 and 13. But the results couldn’t become official until legal challenges to the ballots of 44 workers were decided by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In the end, the NLRB decided 15 of the challenged ballots were valid, and opened and counted them. That brought the final tally to 383 to 382.
Providence could still appeal the result. But if it stands, Local 49 will now represent 838 workers in 76 hospital support classifications ranging from housekeeping and food service to certified nurse assistants, imaging techs and phlebotomists. Local 49 represents similar groups of workers at Kaiser Permanente, PeaceHealth, Legacy Health Services, and at Providence Milwaukie Hospital, where workers unionized last June and are still in negotiations over a first collective bargaining agreement.
Registered nurses at Providence Portland, meanwhile, are members of Oregon Nurses Association.
Local 49 says its most recent Providence union organizing campaign launched over concerns that the nonprofit Catholic hospital chain has put too much emphasis on growth and executive pay and devoted too few resources to patient care.
Over the last 10 years, workers at the hospital have seen their wages fail to keep up with cost of living, and they’ve also seen their benefits decline, said Local 49 president Meg Niemi. Providence took away their defined benefit pension, and diminished their health insurance benefits: Emergency room co-pays that were once $50 are now $300, and annual deductibles that were once $500 are now $3,000.
At the same time, as many as 28 Providence executives make over a $1 million a year, and CEO Rod Hochman was paid $10.5 million in 2017. That’s at a non-profit.
Providence has undergone several mergers in recent years and now operates 50 hospitals in seven states — Alaska, California, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas and Washington. Niemi said over 12,000 Providence workers in California and Washington are represented by other SEIU locals. Providence is the largest health system operating in Oregon.