October 8, 2008

Is a union due?

After almost 20 years, it appears Audubon Hospital nurses might finally vote on whether to unionize

Nurses at Louisville’s Audubon Hospital have spent nearly two decades trying to unionize, saying the move would help them deliver better patient care.

Pro-union nurses claim hospital owners — first Columbia/HCA Healthcare, now Norton Healthcare — have stymied their efforts, breaking labor laws along the way. They say hospital managers have used fear tactics to discourage them from voting for a union, an allegation that prompted the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to file a complaint earlier this year.

Norton officials deny the claims, saying it’s the nurses who have postponed votes they knew they were going to lose. At this point, however, a Norton spokesman says the company just wants the situation resolved, even if the result is a union.

Late last month, an administrative law judge heard the labor complaint accusing Audubon Hospital managers of coercing nurses to vote no and preventing the distribution of pro-union literature. A decision is expected by November, according to Judge Ira Sandron, who is handling the case.

“We’re up against a goliath, but that’s not stopping us,” says Ann Hurst, a cardiovascular nurse at Audubon since 1981.

Unionizing would allow them to set nurse-patient ratios more favorable to patients, which is the main reason for their efforts, says Hurst, adding it also would help relieve an “awful” turnover rate.

“I don’t want to hurt my employer,” she says. “I just want to have better working conditions so I can give better patient care.”

Norton Healthcare, though, claims unions reduce scheduling flexibility; create another layer between management and nurses; and foster an adversarial atmosphere, says Steve Menaugh, the company’s vice president for public relations.

“We’re not against labor unions per se,” he says. “We just don’t feel they work well in a healthcare environment and don’t think it’s in the best interests of our nurses or our organization.”

Last year, Norton paid $172,000 to settle a labor complaint by three Audubon nurses, and Kentucky AFL-CIO Federation President Bill Londrigan said on the AFL-CIO website that overall, Norton Healthcare has paid over $570,000 to nurses in labor settlements, and Columbia/HCA previously paid $270,000 for its violations.

Over the last 19 years, nurses say they have been on the verge of voting for a union on several occasions before ownership resorted to union-busting tactics. Elections have been delayed while the NLRB has looked into allegations of wrongdoing.

The pro-union nurses lost an election in 1994, but the result was overturned after the NLRB determined managers for then-owner Columbia/HCA coerced nurses into voting no.

“(The) organizing campaign at Norton Audubon Hospital is the poster child for what is wrong with the National Labor Relations Act and the laws that govern organizing workers in this country,” Londrigan wrote in a recent e-mail. “When it takes literally years for workers to get an election, when they are harassed there is something very, very wrong ….”

Pro-union nurses hoped to have an election last year and again early this year, according to Hurst, who says Norton hired a union-busting company to intimidate.

“A lot of these women say, ‘I have to have my job,’” she says. “So they’re just frozen. You look in their eyes and they’re just frozen.”

The union was set to vote in March, before the most recent complaint derailed it.

“We were disappointed the March 14 and 15 election was postponed because we felt like our nurses on both sides of the issue were ready to have the vote,” Menaugh says on behalf of Norton. “We feel like we presented a strong case and we feel like we ran a very fair and open campaign that allowed both sides to present their cases to the nurses.”

But union organizers allege Norton hired a consultant to coach managers on how to discourage pro-union voting while skirting the letter of the law, which in this case resulted in actually breaking the law, claims Cindy Loudin, organizer for the National Nurses Organizing Committee of the California Nurses Association, which works with nurses nationwide.

“This is just one of many attempts that the nurses have made that has been thwarted because management continues to break the law,” says Loudin. “Nurses attempt to organize, and it ends up that they’ve made it so people are afraid to even talk about it.”