Coalition takes service employees in new direction

The Service Employees International Union is the organizing star of the Nevada labor market.

The union organized five hospitals in the Silver State in the past two years, an accomplishment no other SEIU chapter in the nation has equaled. The SEIU’s membership grew 20 percent in the Silver State in 2006, said Jane McAlevey, executive director of the labor group’s Nevada chapter. The SEIU’s ranks include seven out of every 10 nurses in the state, and it also represents hospital technicians, housekeepers, dietary staffers and cooks.

“We are wall to wall in almost every hospital,” McAlevey said.

The SEIU made news in December 2006 when bargaining talks over contracts for 800 nurses and 110 technicians at Valley and Desert Springs hospitals boiled over into threats of a nursing walkout.

Nurses called off the strike the night before it was scheduled to begin, but officials of the Valley Health System, which operates the two hospitals, went ahead with their contingency plans and temporarily replaced workers who said they’d strike. The move led to two days of picketing outside the hospitals.

Local and state officials interceded in the dispute in January, and the two sides announced in February that they’d agreed to a new labor pact.

The SEIU is part of the Change to Win union coalition, a group of seven major national labor groups that separated from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Change to Win also includes Culinary parent Unite Here, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers and employees of the cities of Henderson and North Las Vegas.

Change to Win held a meeting in Las Vegas in March 2006 with 2,000 organizers to discuss a nationwide campaign aimed at finding millions of new members.

Among its national organizing campaigns are efforts to woo janitorial workers, security guards and construction laborers.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters, for example, parks members in front of construction sites at local hospitals and office parks with signs reading, “Shame on (the company).” It’s an effort to draw attention to businesses that aren’t using union labor on their building projects.

Change to Win’s membership composition is an important factor behind the coalition’s growth.

“The Change to Win unions are made up of work forces that are not going to be shipped abroad,” McAlevey said. “You can’t insert an IV tube into a patient or dress wounds from China. You can’t build a residential sector from China. It’s pretty darn hard to serve a cocktail from Myanmar. Change to Win has a core set of workers who make up the service economy. We are going after sectors of the economy that are less able to be transported.”

The SEIU in particular has enjoyed major growth in the past decade, gaining 1 million members nationally since 1996. That’s a faster growth rate than any other labor group is experiencing, McAlevey said.

Because the SEIU is finished with negotiations for the next two to three years, the group is emphasizing local growth, political action and public policy in 2007 and 2008, McAlevey said.

The union is analyzing the choices for United States president in 2008, and will be throwing its support and resources to a specific candidate.

SEIU members are also weighing in on public policy, testifying before the Nevada Legislature on behalf of a law that would require hospitals to maintain lower nurse-to-patient ratios.

SEIU officials plan to organize more hospitals in Nevada, but McAlevey wouldn’t disclose specific properties the union is considering entering. Among the hospitals that remain nonunion in Las Vegas are Southern Hills and MountainView hospitals, both owned by HCA, and Spring Hills and Summerlin hospitals, both owned by Valley Health parent Universal Health Services.

Universal Health is also nearing completion of its Centennial Hills Hospital and Medical Center in northwest Las Vegas.

Valley Health officials declined to comment on whether they expect increased organizing activity at their nonunion hospitals. The Nevada Hospital Association didn’t return a phone call seeking comment for this article.

Market growth and union proliferation into nonunion hospitals are inevitable for the SEIU, McAlevey said. Las Vegas is a top destination for retirees, which means the health care system in the region will continue to add workers.

Plus, McAlevey said, the majority of hospital employees she talks to say they want a union.

“We get phone calls every single day from nurses and health care workers who say, ‘Hey, over here,'” McAlevey said. “What we’ve done for professional nurses in the last two years — wages, health care, retirement plans, staffing levels — those things matter a tremendous amount to nurses.”

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