WASHINGTON (PAI) - Sometimes, something very simple - like taking away peanut butter-can turn a person into a union activist.
That was the case for an oncology nurse at Backus Hospital in Norwich, Conn., whose nurses just voted to affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers, said her colleague, John Brady, an RN and bargaining committee member for the union.
"Management brought in this efficiency expert" to cut costs, just before the union organizing drive started there last fall, Brady told Press Associates Union News Service after a July 18 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing in Washington on union recognition elections, procedures and obstacles. He testified at the hearing.
"The expert started cutting everything, from night pay down to removing peanut butter from the kitchenette.
"That got one of the oncology nurses mad. She said that for extremely ill patients, sometimes they have only half-an-hour to get food into them" before the patient "becomes sick to their stomach" and can't keep food down. So the nurse wants to make sure her patients get as much protein as possible.
Hence the peanut butter. It's high in protein. When the efficiency expert yanked the peanut butter, the nurse headed for the AFT, to join the organizing committee.
"As a nurse, if you don't have a voice to speak for your patients without fear of retribution, you can't do your job," Brady added.
Despite the peanut butter abolition and other management tactics - which were not the worst described to the NLRB at the hearing - the Backus nurses held firm and voted for AFT. Now they're putting together proposals for a first contract.
Brady and other unionists joined a parade of witnesses in the first of two days of NLRB hearings on its proposed rules to streamline union elections . Most of the witnesses were lawyers, including from several notorious union-busting firms.
NLRB's proposals, open for written comments until Aug. 22, include handling more requests electronically, ordering firms to turn over so-called Excelsior lists - company-compiled lists of whom they consider to be eligible voters in any election - to the union in two days, not seven, and rolling all complaints about who can be in a bargaining unit, plus complaints of election violations, into one post-election hearing.
The NLRB's current rules give companies multiple opportunities to delay, and deny unions the right to try to reach workers and convince them of the benefits of unionization, pro-worker witnesses said.
"The elections process is actually OK - if you were in the 1960s," AFSCME counsel Margaret McCann told the board. "But as they exist today, they've been hijacked by the employers, under their right to communicate with their workers."
"Employers have ample opportunities to speak about unions in the workplace and unions do not," labor historian Joseph McCartin told the board. "Yet fair elections require both have ample opportunity to communicate with the electorate. We've been told these rules will stifle employer speech. It's just not true."
The management-side witnesses - only one of whom was an actual business owner - countered that the NLRB the rules work fine. One lawyer called the election rules "a well-oiled machine." Several of the union-buster lawyers said employers need even more time than they now get to "educate" - their word - employees about unions.
The longer that education goes on, one of those lawyers admitted, the more elections unions lose. He didn't say why, and the board members didn't ask. But the workers told them. The shady tactics outlined included:
- Management held "1-on-1 and 2-on-1 browbeating sessions" with individual workers during all three of his union's most recent organizing drives, said Scott Pedigo of Utility Workers Local 304. The browbeating was illegal under labor law. One management also retaliated against union organizers.
"Each campaign took at least six months and one took a year. Each took so long because of the advantage for employers" by drawing out NLRB proceedings, Pedigo added.
- Backus management handed Backus Nurses United an Excelsior list with 42 names on it nobody ever recognized and no addresses. "We had to drive all over the state of Connecticut" to find those 42, Brady said. "And three weren't even nurses." Stuffing the Excelsior lists with last-minute pro-management hires is a common tactic.
- Los Angeles nurse Veronica Tench told the board that the delays St. Vincent Medical Center threw in the way of SEIU's organizing drive there were so long and so numerous, that it took 13 years before they finally got their union, last month. In the intervening time, three of the original organizing committee members died.
That organizing drive started, she said, because nurses were sticking up for their patients by demanding an increase in staffing in respiratory care units. "They learned about the organizing drive" long before SEIU presented the required petition and cards to hospital management. "They posted anti-union flyers and posted more security staff" around nurses stations to spy.
"They even told us that those who joined the union would have to pay more for parking," she said.
Two weeks before the initial vote, in 2000, management suddenly outsourced 27 jobs - all held by strong union supporters at the hospital. That was illegal intimidation.
SEIU filed unfair labor practices complaints with NLRB in L.A., but didn't get a board ruling on them until 2007. SEIU won the election rerun, "But if these new rules had been in effect, the delay would have been avoided," Tench said.
- Asking for regional hearings on something as simple as the election date. Combined with overworked NLRB staff, that often delays the vote by a month or more.
"These hearings are extremely helpful and there's been a lot of interesting ideas thrown out," said board chairman Wilma Liebman during a break in the proceedings.
Besides the Aug. 22 deadline for written comments, there is no timeline for when the board can move ahead with the proposals, said agency communications director Nancy Cleeland. But the board may have an added incentive to move quickly.
The NLRB faces the prospect that it could be without a quorum to do any business by the end of this year. The 5-member board currently has one vacancy and Liebman's term expires just before Labor Day. Board member Craig Becker's presidential recess appointment - Democratic President Barack Obama named him to the board over a GOP filibuster - ends when Congress adjourns at the end of this year.
If all three seats are unfilled by early next year, the board would once again lack a quorum and it could not issue rulings or promulgate the new election rules. It also lacked a quorum in the later years of the GOP Bush administration.