Nurse details how hospital manipulated election to beat union

WASHINGTON – Tossing workers out of the bargaining unit.  Demanding — and getting — the voting date it wanted.  Refusal to give out needed information.  Yanking workers from their jobs, in this case taking nurses away from their patients, to subject them to daily anti-union harangues.

All those business tactics and more led to a loss in a California nurses’ union representation vote, nurse Brenda Crawford told lawmakers in early March.  She said the conditions that let employers commit those acts must change.

Crawford detailed those abuses as the only pro-worker witness at a House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee hearing called to discuss the ruling GOP’s bill to overturn the National Labor Relations Board’s union representation elections rules changes.

And though the panel, and the GOP House majority, fully expect to approve that anti-NLRB measure, it’s ultimately destined to go nowhere.  That’s because even before the GOP-run Senate approved a similar bill, President Obama said he would veto it.

Crawford testified for the NLRB’s proposed rule by showing how her union, the United Nurses Association of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, had to agree to company demands just to get the vote quickly, in hopes of avoiding the many delays that firms use to frustrate and deny organizing drives.  Their hopes failed, and they lost the election.

The other witnesses at the hearing came from management lobbies and management-side law firms.  They vociferously and unanimously supported the GOP’s bill and trashed the NLRB’s planned rule, which is scheduled to take effect Apr. 14.

“It became clear to us the NLRB’s election procedures were rife with opportunities for employers to create delay and uncertainty,” Crawford said, describing her 2013 experiences, and those of other organizers, at the drive at Universal Health Systems, Inc., of Murrieta.

First, Universal demanded that charge nurses be tossed out of the proposed bargaining unit.  It demanded and got an NLRB pre-election hearing to decide that issue at “another, nearly identical bargaining unit,” to delay the vote there, Crawford explained.  “We knew the company would raise the same argument in our case. Charge nurses, who help to facilitate the floor operations, made up only a small percentage of the bargaining unit we sought.

“We thought they belonged in the bargaining unit, so they could exercise their rights with the rest of the RNs.  But we also knew if a hearing was held to determine whether or not the charge nurses were supervisors, the resulting litigation would delay our chance to vote for weeks.”  Rather than delay the vote, the organizing team yielded to Universal’s claim.  Supervisors can’t vote in recognition elections.

Under the NLRB’s planned rules, the charge nurses could have cast contested ballots, and a hearing would have been held after the election on the supervisors issue. Their ballots would be counted only if they made a difference in the vote’s outcome, Crawford said.

Holding the charge nurses hearing before the vote, which current NLRB election rules allow, would let the company delay the vote.  And Universal picked the vote date.  To avoid yet another dispute, hearing and delay, the union acceded, she said.  “Under the NLRB’s current election procedures, employers have an unbalanced ability to demand when and how an election takes place,” she said.

“We had to agree to an election date that was a month and a half after the petition was filed, even though there were no longer any issues that needed to be decided for an election to take place earlier. The NLRB’s rule will allow the parties to approach elections on a more-even footing,” Crawford said. “It removes the company’s leverage to force a pre-election hearing to unnecessarily litigate these types of small issues, and would offer greater protection for the rights of workers.”

Crawford said Universal “ran a relentless anti-union campaign…daily, on every shift,” even before her union filed the election petition.  The union had no comparable ability to communicate with workers, she told lawmakers.

“My fellow nurses and I were taken off patient care constantly to attend anti-union meetings. The company would send anti-union propaganda e-mails to the nurses, and even sent anti-union text messages to the nurses’ personal cell phones on off-work time.  The anti-union campaign created a great amount of stress among the RNs, whose main concern was patient care.  This stress was one of the main reasons we decided to concede the charge nurses, so that we could get to an election as soon as possible.”

The union was restricted to contacting the nurses at home, and didn’t even know when they were on or off their 12-hour shifts, she said.  “If we had more information about the nurses than just their home addresses, we could contact them to set up a time to meet with them.”

The NLRB’s rule proposes giving unions addresses, phone numbers and emails of potential bargaining unit members — a move the management witnesses decried as an invasion of workers’ privacy. “Had we had this information, we would have had a better opportunity to communicate with our fellow nurses, and use the same means of communication the company was using,” Crawford said.

“The union lost. The company was able to manipulate the election procedure to delay the election date, and could communicate with the workers in ways the union could not. These advantages make it very doubtful that the election results were an accurate reflection of the RNs’ desire to join together to collectively bargain with our employer,” she said.

The panel’s ruling Republicans dismissed her evidence.  “The board’s real goal is to dramatically tilt the outcome of elections in favor of union leaders by ambushing employers and workers without allowing them to fully understand their decision,” charged Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., who chaired the hearing.  “The board’s rule eviscerates the right of employers to speak freely to employees during an organizing campaign. The Republicans refused to invite the NLRB to defend its planned rule.

Photo: Brenda Crawford.  |  AFSCME


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.