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April 17, 2014

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Nobody wins: Second vote leaves nurses divided, unions’ fight unresolved

In May, the Service Employees International Union — the long-standing representative of nurses in Nevada and the state’s second-largest union — barely survived a coup.

Seven months later, the union’s standing in Nevada seems even more precarious.

Nurses it represented at three St. Rose Dominican hospitals voted in greater numbers in May to join a rival union, the California Nurses Association. The SEIU effectively won the day because an election victory, according to federal labor law, requires more than 50 percent of the vote, a threshold the California-based union failed to achieve. Twenty-six nurses voted for no union.

So the National Labor Relations Board scheduled a runoff.

That election took place this week, providing an equally ambiguous result. After balloting Tuesday and Wednesday, the SEIU won 392 votes. The California union earned 390. The outcome now hinges on 11 challenged ballots being investigated by the federal labor board.

But whatever the outcome, the second close election raises the question of why the SEIU is struggling to maintain its status as the primary organizer of nurses in Nevada. The stalemate with the California Nurses Association is glaring given the SEIU had seven months to bring disaffected members back into the fold. The union also had the advantage of a new St. Rose contract, complete with generous wage increases and stronger staffing protections. (The St. Rose hospitals are owned by Catholic Healthcare West.)

The SEIU’s narrow edge this week may reflect how the union has been hobbled by fractured leadership, having gone through a succession of leaders after both its longtime executive director and president resigned in June amid vicious infighting. But it also illustrates just how polarized nurses are.

In fact, the result had the union’s leaders breathing a sigh of relief because despite the internal strife, the SEIU signed what it says is a strong contract.

“Actually, I’m very happy, given what we’ve had to overcome” in confronting the California group, said Ed Burke, the SEIU’s executive director.

The unions have been in a pitched battle for the hearts and minds of nurses over the past year. The fight is part of a bitter national feud. The California Nurses Association argues that it can better represent the interests of nurses because it deals exclusively with the health care profession. The SEIU counters that power comes in numbers, and that nurses are stronger against an employer when they bargain together with ancillary staff such as housekeepers, technicians and dietary aides.

The fight in Nevada began a year ago, when the California Nurses Association bested the SEIU in a battle to represent 500 unorganized nurses at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Reno. Months later, it sent nurses dressed in scrubs into cafeterias and lobbies of St. Rose hospitals to organize nurses.

The California union, regarded as a somewhat militant labor organization, has been equally aggressive elsewhere. It sent organizers into eight Catholic hospitals in Ohio in April to undercut a deal that SEIU leaders had struck with hospital managers to allow the SEIU to organize without interference.

The service union has accused the California Nurses Association of raiding in Las Vegas. The California union is currently laying the groundwork for another campaign against the SEIU at University Medical Center — two years before it can legally challenge the service union in an election.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Burke, who’s 59, “and that’s not what I call being a member of the trade union family.”

Jill Furillo, director of the California Nurses Association’s Catholic health care division, said the St. Rose nurses’ continued support this week underscores the need for intervention. “This reaffirms the nurses have a commitment to CNA patient advocacy and they’ve rejected the SEIU’s labor-management partnership that’s produced backdoor contracts with take-aways in them,” she said. “I think the issue here is the SEIU has had this place for eight years and they put everything they had into this campaign. There was a full-court press and they did not prevail.”

Some nurses say despite winning strong contracts, the SEIU has failed to represent them and enforce those contracts in the workplace. As a result, nurses said they reached out to the California union. Supporters also point to what they call past contract failings, including an increase in health care premiums for some St. Rose nurses as a result of changes negotiated by an SEIU local in California.

While the SEIU says it addressed those concerns in its new pact, claiming the best nursing contract in the state, many nurses remained unconvinced. “We got a subpar contract,” said Charlotte Tyler, a registered nurse at St. Rose’s San Martin Campus. “We need someone who knows our needs and concerns.”

Tyler accused the SEIU of running a “thuggish, rowdy and threatening” campaign. SEIU supporters made similar accusations about the California union. And each side touted its recent contract wins — the SEIU at St. Rose, the California Nurses Association at St. Mary’s in Reno — as proof of effectiveness.

Nurses, however, were clearly split.

The division comes at a critical point for the SEIU, distracting labor leaders at a time when Clark County is seeking possible givebacks from public employees because of declining revenue. The union has also delayed finalizing its legislative package for the upcoming legislative session next year.

The federal labor board hasn’t indicated when it will settle the election.

“No matter who wins,” said Cornell University labor expert Rick Hurd, “they’re going to have a tough time of pulling these workers together.”

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