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September 20, 2014

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LABOR:

Rival unions’ efforts to reconcile will be visible to valley nurses

After a yearlong battle to represent nurses at three St. Rose Dominican hospitals, the Service Employees International Union and the California Nurses Association have reached a peace accord.

Under the agreement, the SEIU will essentially cede the 1,100 nurses it now represents at the facilities to the California-based union. In return, the California nurses group will end its campaign to oust the SEIU as registered nurses’ longtime collective bargaining representative at other Las Vegas-area hospitals, including University Medical Center.

The action comes as part of a national agreement between the two unions that was announced Thursday, ending a bitter rivalry in which each side castigated the other in the press and in the courts. Each union has accused the other of using union-busting tactics to boost membership rolls. In one instance, at a labor conference in Michigan last year, the sides came to physical blows.

Labor leaders said President Barack Obama’s election last year triggered a series of discussions about reconciliation, especially given the president’s support of both universal health care and legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize.

“We see maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change our system from a sick care system to a health care system, and at the same time pass the Employee Free Choice Act,” SEIU President Andy Stern in a phone interview said. “That seems so huge compared to the issues we’ve been wrestling with. The significance of our differences seems rather insignificant.”

Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, said the accord ends “an enormous family feud.”

Nationally, “we’re the most powerful union with nurses. They are the most powerful union in health care,” she said. “That represents a phenomenal amount of momentum going forward.”

The SEIU has 1.8 million members nationwide, including 80,000 nurses. The California association represents 85,000 nurses, and, through a merger with two other nurses unions, will soon balloon to 150,000 members. Going into Thursday’s announcement, the SEIU had represented the vast majority of nurses in Nevada.

Both unions have pledged to wage a national campaign to organize hospital workers, with the California group representing nurses and the service workers representing ancillary staff, such as housekeepers, technicians and dietary aides.

The two will also partner to promote federal and state legislation. In Nevada the unions will pool resources to lobby for a bill that would mandate nurse-to-patient ratios. The California Nurses Association was successful in pushing such a measure in its home state. The unions have endorsed a single-payer health care system for individual states.

In Las Vegas, a National Labor Relations Board election will determine union representation at the St. Rose Dominican hospitals. The SEIU pledged to support the organizing efforts of the California nurses, who represent the vast majority of nurses employed by St. Rose Dominican’s parent company, Catholic Healthcare West.

The fight in Nevada began in late 2007, when the nurses union bested the service workers 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 the St. Rose hospitals to poach nurses, garnering enough support for an election.

The SEIU narrowly survived the vote, with the California nurses winning more votes but failing to achieve a majority because 26 nurses voted for no union. A runoff election in December resulted in a draw.

Stern said the two unions had fought each other in California, Texas and Florida over the past year. In Ohio the California union sent organizers into eight Catholic hospitals to undercut a deal that SEIU leaders had struck with hospital managers to allow the SEIU to organize without interference.

Although the new agreement means a likely loss of membership for the SEIU in Nevada, it would seem to afford a degree of protection against a new rival, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which was formed in California this year by former SEIU leaders as part of a war with Stern and his allies.

Tens of thousands of California health care workers have signed a petition to leave the SEIU and join the breakaway union, which had planned to seek an alliance with the California Nurses Association in a number of states, including Nevada. The new agreement would seem to blunt the rival union’s efforts.

The SEIU and the California nurses said Thursday they would target national hospital chains, including Tenet and the Hospital Corporation of America, which owns and operates four hospitals in Southern Nevada. Nurses at two of the hospitals are represented by SEIU. The other two remain nonunion.

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