Thursday, March 27, 2008 | 2 a.m.
- SEIU rises above chaos for Obama (1-09-2008)
Beyond the Sun
The Service Employees International Union faced an apparent revolt Wednesday as several hundred nurses at the three St. Rose Dominican hospitals filed a petition to switch to a rival union — even as the SEIU negotiates a new contract on the nurses’ behalf.
The rival California Nurses Association would not disclose the number of signatures on the election petition it filed with the National Labor Relations Board. But organizers said the number exceeded the minimum required under federal labor law — 30 percent of an eligible bargaining unit. That means at least 330 of 1,100 registered nurses at St. Rose signed.
Supporters said the purpose is to gain more clout through a union that represents only nurses. They also were responding to what they referred to as failures on patient-care issues in SEIU-negotiated contracts.
SEIU officials countered that the petition stemmed from a small group of dissidents and an unusually aggressive union that had misled members. The SEIU also called the move illegal, citing a provision in the AFL-CIO’s constitution barring representation fights.
The battle is the latest chapter in what has been a tumultuous year for the SEIU, which represents 17,500 health care and public service employees in Nevada.
Two internal elections last year revealed a rift in the union. In the first, members considered unfriendly to the executive director, Jane McAlevey, won seats on the union’s executive board. Those results, however, were thrown out.
In the second election, Mc-
Alevey and union staff successfully campaigned for a different slate of candidates. A vocal faction accused McAlevey of essentially rigging the election and has filed a complaint with the Labor Department. Mc-
Alevey has dismissed the faction as small and ostracized.
The union’s presidential endorsement process — which resulted in the union’s backing Illinois Sen. Barack Obama — exacerbated feelings of distrust.
The international union passed endorsement decisions to state SEIU councils in October, but many suspected that international leadership supported former Sen. John Edwards. The international’s secretary-treasurer, Anna Burger, bolstered suspicions when she called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office to complain about his son, Rory Reid, chairman of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s Nevada campaign.
The union’s local staff botched an attempt to poll members on their preferences for president, leaving executive board members without a clear sense of rank-and-file support. The executive board then voted to endorse Obama, who lost to Clinton.
The SEIU had hoped to emerge from those unpleasant times and reassert itself at the bargaining table, beginning with the St. Rose contract affecting 2,200 nurses and support staff.
In 2006 the union rallied under the banner of patient care, winning enforceable staffing ratios and a ban on mandatory overtime at the St. Rose hospitals.
“We are at the table now to make the best even better,” Shauna Hamel, the union’s executive vice president, said in a statement.
In a wide-ranging interview Tuesday, McAlevey sought to use this year’s talks to spark public debate about the quality of health care in Nevada. She did not mention the California Nurses Association challenge, which did not become public until the following day.
At issue in the St. Rose talks is the management practice of “daily call-offs,” or canceling shifts with little to no notice to employees, McAlevey said. The union says the practice hinders patient care.
“For anyone to tell us there’s not a need for more full-time workers in the valley’s hospitals — that person should be put into a crazy ward,” she said.
But St. Rose nurses who support the CNA said the high standards achieved in their latest contract are not being enforced and the SEIU has failed to assist in that enforcement. Nurses also say they are impressed by the gains of the CNA in its talks with St. Rose parent company Catholic Healthcare West in California.
The CNA represents 80,000 nurses nationwide — 10,500 of whom are employed by Catholic Healthcare West — and has fought bitter organizing battles with the SEIU for years. The CNA bested the SEIU in December to represent 500 nurses at St. Mary’s Regional Health Center in Reno.
At St. Rose, the SEIU fought the CNA by asking members of the bargaining team to sign a petition demanding they “reject any false promises from forces that seek only to divide our strength.” Hamel said a second petition supporting the SEIU’s bargaining contains a majority of nurses, in addition to ancillary staff.
The St. Rose talks are one of many steps the SEIU plans this year as it recovers from its failure to deliver a victory for Obama. The union will reassert itself at the bargaining table and the polls, and is already sharing its story across the Southwest, McAlevey said.
As part of a national initiative to organize workers in right-to-work states, SEIU Nevada members have traveled to Texas and Colorado to bolster unionizing drives. Nevada has the highest union density — 15 percent — of the nation’s right-to-work states.
The union will vet judicial candidates for the first time at a membership forum next month. (The union represents clerks in the Clark County court system.) It is also planning a role in targeted Clark County Commission and state Senate races, local arenas in which it has been successful in the past.
Sun reporter Tony Cook contributed to this story.