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Stephanie Taylor Headshot

Ohio Nurses' Union Busted By California Nurses

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There are 8,000 hospital workers in Ohio who should have joined the union last week but did not -- because of the union-busting tactics of the California Nurses Association. I used to work for SEIU District 1199 in Ohio, working for years on this very campaign to unionize nurses, and I don't even know how to start talking about this. Jane asked me a week ago for my thoughts, but it's been painfully hard to put into words.

Here's the bare bones summary of what happened, from the New York Times. But of course it is much, much more complicated than this:

The Service Employees International Union was brimming with confidence about unionizing 8,300 workers at nine Ohio hospitals through elections that were scheduled for this Wednesday and Friday. But then organizers from a rival union, the California Nurses Association, swept into town, buttonholing workers and maneuvering their way into hospital wards, to press the workers to vote not to join the S.E.I.U.

To truly grasp the tragedy that occurred when the California Nurses Association stopped Ohio nurses from organizing, it's important to understand the years of work put in by Ohio nurses to reach this moment before the vote.

The campaign started back in 1999, when a group of registered nurses in Lorain, Ohio decided to form a union with SEIU. Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP), their employer and the largest hospital system in Ohio, fought the organizing drive fiercely. In the final days before the vote, management even brought in nuns to pass out cookies and tell the nurses that "God doesn't want you to have the union."

The nurses won their secret-ballot election, monitored by the National Labor Relations Board, with just 51% of the vote. But even after winning official union recognition, they had to negotiate a contract. The nurses had to strike two times before they won their first contract with the hospital.

When other workers at the same hospital -- and nurses at other CHP facilities around Ohio -- also tried to organize, they faced the same ferocious fight. It became clear that in order to win substantial gains, more CHP workers needed to act -- together -- to take on their employer. So in May 2004, hundreds of CHP workers from around the state met in Cincinnati and launched a campaign to try to organize not shop by shop, but against the whole health system at once.

CHP management fought these workers fiercely. I remember seeing the impact of the boss fight while working turf on two hospitals in Cincinnati. Sleepy workers at the end of the night shift were forced to watch anti-union propaganda videos. Supervisors dragged workers into their offices for one-on-ones. Slowly, union supporters started getting discouraged or flipping altogether. I would show up for scheduled appointments with union supporters, and suddenly they would be "not home," or screaming at me to get off the lawn and letting their dogs loose.

So for those rank-and-file activists who stuck it out, it was a huge victory when they won a neutrality agreement from CHP for free and fair union elections -- a vote free of interference, harassment or intimidation from their supervisors.

Eight thousand workers, about to join the union--and then outsiders from a rival union, the California Nurses Association (CNA), started leafleting and harassing workers in the week before their vote, telling them to vote "no," creating such mass confusion and hysteria that SEIU was finally forced to cancel the elections altogether.

"They ran a union-busting operation," said Dave Regan, SEIU District 1199 chief. "What is unbelievable is that it was done by an organization that purports to be a union."

I can't explain why the California Nurses Association did what they did. There's a long history of bad blood between the two unions, rooted in ideological differences over whether nurses should all be in their own union (says the CNA) or whether nurses should be part of the biggest healthcare union in the country (says SEIU).

But regardless of ideology, what is unbelievable is that any union would bust another one. What is particularly unbelievable is the fact that the CNA tried to paint the neutrality agreement between the hospital and the workers -- an agreement the workers spent years fighting for -- as some sort of "sweetheart deal":

Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the nurses association, condemned this agreement. She called it "a rigged scam" in which the service employees union would bargain only half-heartedly if it won the vote.

"This was a top-down deal between an employer and a hand-picked union," Ms. DeMoro said. There was a gag order on everyone, and as a result this was a banana republic election."

In Cincinnati, where 4,200 workers from five hospitals were scheduled to vote, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the canceled vote was even described by the CNA as "a significant victory."

Outraged? SEIU is responding with a petition to the CNA that "Silencing Nurses Voices Is Not a Victory." You can sign it here. And you can see Ohio nurses respond to the California Nurses Association here.

By the way, no new election date has been set.