Vote leaves union question undecided


A second vote should have decided it all, but the results of a two-day union election inside St. Rose Dominican Hospitals left one side vowing to fight on.

Nurses who work at St. Rose's three area hospitals voted 392-390 to hang onto the Service Employees International Union, rather than turning for representation to upstart rival California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee.

Here's the catch: The two sides have contested 11 votes. That means the election's results aren't final, and they may not be final until early 2009.

The outcome is as inconclusive as the result of the first vote in May. Neither side claimed a majority of votes then, and the California Nurses Association fell three votes shy of the 403 votes it needed to win. In this week's election, held Tuesday and Wednesday, the nurses' association captured 10 fewer nods than it collected in May. The SEIU added 15 votes.

"We had to reverse a negative, and we did that," said Ed Burke, executive director of the SEIU's local chapter.

Burke said the SEIU won the election partly because it added several programs in recent months, including a contract department that focuses on helping members with work-related problems. The union also unveiled a new contract in October, and that boosted the SEIU's prospects in the second election, he said.

That's all complete balderdash, said Jill Furillo, a registered nurse and director of the California Nurses Association division that handles organizing inside hospitals belonging to Catholic Healthcare West, St. Rose's corporate parent.

First, it's impossible to declare that the nurses' association lost ground when 11 votes hang in the balance, Furillo said.

What's more, the SEIU colluded with St. Rose management to keep organizers with the nurses' association away from employees in key hospital areas such as break rooms. The SEIU's "threats and intimidation" against St. Rose nurses could also have contributed to the changed vote, Furillo said. For example, some SEIU organizers told nurses they'd lose retroactive pay increases if they transferred bargaining rights to a different labor group, Furillo said. The SEIU also conspired with St. Rose management to push start dates on increased out-of-pocket health care expenses to January, after the second vote was scheduled, Furillo said.

"The SEIU put a full-court press on that place," Furillo said. "They had lined this thing up to be absolutely optimal for them, and still they could not pull it off."

St. Rose representatives didn't comment on Furillo's allegations by press time.

Burke called the allegations "preposterous," and said they have "no merit whatsoever."

It's been a bruising year for the two unions and the 1,000 or so nurses who work for St. Rose.

The California Nurses Association began organizing locally in late 2007 after a group of nurses asked them to enter the market. In April, the union gained ammunition for its organizing efforts when word leaked that the U.S. Department of Labor was investigating whether the SEIU illegally used employer money to produce campaign materials for specific candidates in its September 2007 election of new officials. Then came May's bitterly contested union election. And in June, Jane McAlevey, the former executive director of SEIU's local chapter, and Vicky Hedderman, its then-president, stepped down to give the union "opportunity to have new leadership and unity moving forward," a spokeswoman said then.

The two sides even fought over the October labor agreement the SEIU negotiated. The SEIU said the contract calls for raises of up to 38.2 percent over four years; the CNA says that's the raise one worker will get following a grievance process. The rest of the SEIU's members will get pay increases of 14 percent to 18 percent, Furillo said.

The battle could go well into 2009.

The labor relations board will hold individual hearings on each of the 11 contested votes, a process Furillo doesn't expect to happen until after the holidays. In the meantime, the California Nurses Association has a week to decide whether it will file objections over how the election was conducted. If the labor relations board finds objectionable conduct, the remedy could be a third election, Furillo said.

"I am entirely confident we will represent the nurses (at St. Rose)," Furillo said.

But Burke said he's confident the election's results will hold, because both parties agreed that the winner of this latest runoff would take all. He also expects the contested votes to go in the SEIU's favor.

"They're just trying to save face and buy some time," he said.

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