Discontent divides RNs


An employee vote Wednesday night couldn't resolve a tussle between unions battling to represent 1,100 local nurses, and more feuding could follow as labor groups argue over the election's results.

The California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee fell just three votes short of the tally it needed to win representation of nurses working inside Southern Nevada's three St. Rose Dominican hospitals. The CNA required 403 votes to take over, but the group earned 400 votes in the secret balloting. In addition, 377 nurses voted to stick with their current group, the Service Employees International Union. Another 26 nurses opted for no union, and about 300 didn't vote at all.

Because the CNA "actually did very well" for an upstart group, and because the SEIU dominates representation of local nurses, neither side will quickly surrender the fight for St. Rose Dominican's nurses, said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"(The vote) was quite a powerful statement," Lichtenstein said. "The SEIU has 1.9 million members around the country, and (union President) Andy Stern is a national figure. The CNA is this little union with 70,000 members. They got 400 votes in a hospital that the SEIU has represented for a while."

The CNA is already contesting four votes from Wednesday's election, and it's asking the SEIU to honor the simple majority vote it won and step aside as the nurses' union at St. Rose Dominican. The SEIU wants the National Labor Relations Board to seek a runoff election in the next few weeks.

The close vote makes it difficult to predict who will prevail.

"It's like Florida in 2000," Lichtenstein said. "It all becomes kind of random whether they win or not."

SEIU officials would use the time before a new vote to ramp up campaign initiatives.

"We're pretty confident about the results of a runoff," said Lynda Tran, an SEIU spokeswoman. "It'll give us time to expose more of the truth about what the CNA has been promising."

The CNA, for its part, will attempt to tap further into discontent among some area nurses as it looks to add to the 10,500 nurses it already represents regionally through Catholic Healthcare West, the parent company of St. Rose Dominican.

Melanie Sisson, a registered nurse at St. Rose Dominican's Siena campus and a 14-year SEIU organizer, said she voted for the CNA Wednesday because the SEIU hasn't been able to reduce nurse-to-patient ratios in Nevada. The CNA managed to fend off efforts in 2005 by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to roll back nurse-to-patient ratios in the Golden State, Sisson said.

Sisson also wanted representation through a nurse-run union. She's frustrated that the SEIU hasn't filed grievances inside local hospitals when staffing ratios go unenforced. Retirement packages for CNA-represented nurses at other hospitals are richer, she added. But the last straw for Sisson came when the SEIU asked members to sign loyalty agreements before they could participate in upcoming bargaining sessions.

Sisson said the CNA fell short of the necessary vote count because the SEIU deployed scare tactics, telling foreign nurses, for example, that years worked overseas wouldn't count any longer toward overall experience.

Tran said she hadn't heard of such tactics locally. Instead, she said, SEIU supporters reported threatening phone calls, as well as meeting disruptions from nonmembers who donned SEIU gear to make the group look bad.

The CNA, which began organizing locally in late 2007 after some nurses asked them to enter the market, hasn't always delivered on its vows, Tran added. Plus, it's divided local nurses just as bargaining on new labor agreements has started -- the worst time for nurses to face a new organizing drive, she said. Rather than pursuing new members who already belong to unions, Tran said, the CNA and other labor groups should focus on bringing in nurses who remain unrepresented.

So how tense could the battle between the unions grow?

There's potential for an especially tough fight, Lichtenstein said.

That's because each group belongs to different umbrella organizations -- the SEIU to Change to Win, and the CNA to the AFL-CIO. So there's no joint mechanism from a higher level to curb the bickering and force compromises.

Add to that the tension Sisson said she's noticed between CNA-supporting nurses and other SEIU bargaining units at St. Rose, such as food-service workers and medical technicians, and the discord isn't likely to abate soon.

Such labor strife is typically bad for workers, Lichtenstein said, because union divisions can give company executives more room to maneuver. In this case, though, workers and their patients could actually benefit, he said. If both unions look at where they went wrong, and how they can appease nurses with lower staffing ratios and improved contracts, then workers and consumers could both come out ahead.

In the meantime, locals needn't worry that the organizing tiff will wend its way toward patients as inattentive care, Lichtenstein said.

"Patients don't feel the infighting," Lichtenstein said. "About 99.99 percent of the time, nurses are just doing their jobs, and at the end of the shift, they'll pick up a leaflet. It's not as if nurses are running around handing out leaflets and forgetting about injections."

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

 

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