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Health care workers fight to unionize

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Health care workers fight to organize
by Doug Mann
Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

Originally posted 12/11/2003

NLRB curtails Walker Methodist's union-busting practices

In May 2003, employees at Walker Methodist Health Center voted 165 to 105 to be represented by a union, Council 14 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). However, if the management gets its way, that vote won't count, and ballots cast by around 70 Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) in a separate election on July 30, 2003, will never be counted.

Walker Methodist Health Center was originally an independent, nonprofit, long-term care facility. Other businesses were later added under the Walker Methodist umbrella, including two additional nursing homes, five senior housing projects, an assisted living facility, and two subsidized senior housing projects.

The Health Center, however, remains the cash cow that makes all other facets of the organization possible.

An attorney formerly employed by Walker to keep labor unions out, Lynn Starkovich, is now the CEO of Walker Methodist, Inc.

Walker's management challenged the original petition for a union representation election, filed in April, arguing that the licensed practical nurses are "supervisors" and are therefore not eligible to join a union. The National Labor Relations Act recognizes the right of non-supervisory employees, not supervisors, to form unions.

However, according to the Minnesota Board of Nursing, "Supervision is not included within the definition of practical nursing.

Therefore, an LPN is not legally authorized to supervise any nursing personnel, including RNs, other LPNs, or unlicensed assistive personnel... An LPN may not perform the activities defined as nursing supervision — delegate, plan, direct, or evaluate nursing practice... Only a registered nurse may delegate to and supervise nursing personnel." (Minnesota Board of Nursing,"For Your Information," Winter 1996).

The union withdrew its original petition and filed for two separate elections; one for LPNs and one for everyone else. However, Walker management is challenging the outcome of both elections on the same grounds — that efforts by LPNs to organize a labor union is illegal. The LPNs allegedly used their supervisory authority to pressure other employees into voting for the union, Walker management asserts.

However, after a hearing in July that lasted eight days and generated over 2,400 pages of testimony, the National Labor Relations Board's regional office based in Minneapolis determined that licensed practical nurses at Walker Methodist Health Center are not "supervisors." Walker's management appealed that decision to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Washington, D.C.

Unfair labor practices

The union provided Walker management with a list of 30 organizing committee members just before it filed its original petition for an election. Not everyone who actively participated in the organizing effort wanted to be on that list. At least a few of the organizing committee members have already been fired for various reasons. Others report being treated differently, such as getting closer supervision and being subjected to disciplinary actions for minor rule infractions.

On November 24, 2003, Walker Methodist agreed to an out-of-court settlement of a complaint of unfair labor practices brought by Tracy Plante, LPN. Walker's management agreed to immediately post a notice in conspicuous places. The notice includes six things the management agreed to not do and five things it will do to make amends for breaking the law.

The notice states, in part: "WE WILL NOT issue disciplinary warnings to employees because they are engaged in union or other protected activities... WE WILL NOT prohibit employees from distributing union buttons pursuant to an unlawful no-solicitation/no-distribution policy contained in our employee handbook. WE WILL NOT tell employees that they are supervisors and threaten that they will be disciplined if they engage in union activities, or fail to be anti-union and pro-management."

WE WILL rescind disciplinary warnings issued to Tracey Plante during the period April-June 2003 and WE WILL notify her in writing that this has been done. WE WILL rescind disciplinary warnings issued to Desiree Hicks, Kady Tarawallie, and Bill Akurma during the period from May-July 2003, for failure to obtain co-signatures when removing narcotics from the medication cart, and WE WILL notify them in writing that this has been done..."

Walker employees have complained that the above-mentioned notice had not been posted as of the weekend of December 6 and 7, 2003, and that it's "business as usual" at the facility.

According to sources, Walker management is planning to post the notice sometime during the week ending December 12, 2003. On December 8, Administrative Assistant Catherine Skeret stated that she hadn't seen the notice. Skeret and Health Services Director Jon Lundberg said they didn't know about it. Those in a position to know were not available for an interview.

The complaint of a former employee, Wilson Coker, was upheld by the Minneapolis office of the NLRB. Coker was fired for allegedly being a "union agent." Coker was hired by Walker several years before the organizing committee contacted AFSCME Council 14. Coker says he wants his job back. The NLRB is taking Walker Methodist to federal court, demanding Coker's reinstatement.

Coker was originally hired as a nursing assistant, but was unable to perform his normal duties after an on-the-job back injury. Walker's management contested Coker's workman's compensation claim and lost. Coker accepted a job in the staffing office.

To support Walker Methodist employees, call the AFSCME Council 14 office at 651-455-0773, Business Agent Tom Burke at 651-287-0584 or Organizer Christi Nelson at 651-287-0582

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