By COLIN STAUB
Oregon Nurses Association has asked for a union election among more than 80 nurses at a hospital in Ontario, Oregon. What’s surprising about that: The union has already represented them for over a decade, and they have a current contract that runs through June.
The election petition is the latest development in a saga that began last summer. Saint Alphonsus Health System operates hospitals in Baker City and Ontario, Oregon, and Boise and Nampa, Idaho. Last August, Saint Alphonsus gave COVID-19 retention raises and bonuses to nurses at the non-union Idaho facilities in Boise and Nampa.
Nurses at the Oregon hospitals in Ontario and Baker City, are represented by the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA). According to the union contracts for the Oregon hospitals, any time the company increases the wage scale for Idaho nurses, it must provide the same increase at the same time for the Oregon union workers.
But Saint Alphonsus management declined to give ONA-represented nurses the same raise last summer, says ONA spokesperson Myrna Jensen.
At first, management just didn’t tell ONA about the incentives, according to an unfair labor practice charge the union filed in April. Next the hospital said extending those benefits to union nurses would require bargaining. Then early this year, Saint Alphonsus management told ONA that they received a petition from a majority of the nurses at the Ontario hospital saying they no longer want to be represented by the union. Managers wouldn’t allow union representatives on the property, and discarded union literature that was on site.
Since mid-April, ONA has filed three charges with National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against Saint Alphonsus alleging illegal unfair labor practices. The union says managers have offered nurses raises if the facility decertifies, that they’ve thrown out ONA bulletin boards in the hospital and distributed anti-union materials to workers, and that they’ve retaliated against nurses who are union leaders.
In a statement emailed to the Labor Press, Saint Alphonsus management defended its actions: “We received a petition signed by the majority of our nurses saying that they no longer wanted to be represented by the Oregon Nurses Association. As the law provides, we withdrew recognition from the ONA, and look forward to moving forward with a direct relationship with our colleagues,” the statement says.
ONA asked to see the petition, but the hospital hasn’t presented anything, Jensen said. The Malheur Enterprise newspaper interviewed one nurse who favored getting rid of the union.
NLRB records show nobody has asked the NLRB to conduct a decertification election, which is typically the next step after a decertification petition is signed by at least 30% of workers.
Saint Alphonsus management says the hospital is following the will of its nurses, and denied it has committed unfair labor practice charges.
“We are confident that we followed the law in respecting the wishes of our nurses, and look forward to responding to the union’s charge in the appropriate forum,” management wrote. “The union recently filed a petition for an election and we also look forward to our nurses’ voices being heard in that forum.”
Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education & Research Center (LERC), says an employer typically must show proof that a union has lost majority support before withdrawing union recognition. Furthermore, the unfair labor practice charges allege that management offered incentives for nurses to support dumping the union, and retaliated against pro-union workers. If true, those actions would constitute interference and could undermine the legal justification for its withdrawal of recognition.
Even if the employer demonstrated a lack of support for the union, Lafer added, employers typically can’t cancel the union contract prior to its expiration date, because it’s a legal document separate from union recognition.
ONA called for the election to show that nurses still support the union. The NLRB will hold a hearing on the unfair labor practices on June 9.