Seek Public Support to Convince Management to Release Impounded Ballots from Union Election Held 7 Months Ago on June 13, 2002
PEMBROKE, Mass.—The registered nurses of Pembroke Hospital, who have been waiting seven months to learn the outcome of their vote for a union election held last June, will hold a candlelight vigil to protest the hospital’s anti-union delaying tactics on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2003 outside the entrance to the facility, located at 199 Oak Street in Pembroke. While the nurses had cast their votes at a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election held at the facility on June 13, 2002, the ballots were impounded after the hospital filed an appeal with the NLRB questioning the nurses’ right to organize a union.
“We have been waiting for the results of our union vote for more than seven months, and we are holding this vigil to raise public awareness of our plight and to ask the public and supporters of our cause to contact the hospital administration and tell them to stop their legal appeal and let the votes be counted,” said Helen Gillam, RN, a nurse at the facility and a member of the union organizing committee. In addition to holding the vigil, the nurses will begin a campaign of leafleting within the community to seek public support for their cause. “All we want is a voice in the decisions that impact our ability to provide the best care possible to our patients. The hospital has ignored us for years and patients have suffered because of it.”
Pembroke Hospital is owned by Universal Health Systems, the nation’s third largest for-profit hospital management company, which owns more than 80 facilities in 22 states. Since purchasing Pembroke in 2001, the company has cut staff and degraded services, causing the state Department of Mental Health to investigate the Pembroke facility later that year. The deteriorating conditions drove many employees to leave the facility, and, ultimately, convinced the nurses to organize a union as a means of protecting themselves and their patients.
In response, Universal Health Systems has hired one of the most expensive union busting firms in the country, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars that could go to desperately needed improvements in nurse staffing and patient care simply to deprive the nurses of their right to form a union. The staffing levels and working conditions at Pembroke Hospital, a psychiatric facility serving the South Shore, are among the worst in the state, with nurses regularly assigned between 12 and 25 patients. A safe assignment for a psychiatric nurse is no more than six patients.
The nurses also complain that the hospital admits patients with criminal backgrounds and a history of violent behavior, yet lacks a forensic unit, a unit designed with staff and resources to care for those patients. Young, aggressive patients, with a history of repeated assaults, are placed on units beside geriatric patients. This has resulted in numerous incidents of workplace violence and assaults of both staff and patients. In fact, the hospital has eliminated its security detail on the evening shift, leaving the understaffed nurses and their patients in a more vulnerable position.
Retaining qualified staff is a key issue for a number of nurses active in the organizing drive, who have seen the growing nursing shortage impact their facility, as nurses leave for better working conditions, pay and benefits offered by surrounding facilities.
The nurses are also among the lowest paid in the region, which prevents the facility from recruiting the staff needed to provide safe patient care. Since the votes have been impounded, conditions have gotten even worse for the nurses.
“Before the vote, management was telling us they cared about these issues and wanted to work to improve things without a union. Well, since the votes have been impounded, things have gotten worse. They have stopped working with us and have even cut a popular bonus program for nurses who work overtime, which is a violation of federal labor law,” said Linda Klemme, a Pembroke nurse and member of the organizing committee. “They had no intention of improving things. All they wanted to do was stop us from having a voice at this hospital.”
The nurses began organizing a union with the Massachusetts Nurses Association in late 2001. This followed a period when staffing conditions deteriorated, and more than 25% of the hospital’s workforce left the facility in response to management policies. In September, the Department of Mental Health began monitoring the facilities staffing levels at Pembroke Hospital. In December of 2001, 80% of the registered nurses eligible for union representation signed cards authorizing the MNA to represent them for collective bargaining. After the hospital refused to grant voluntary recognition of the bargaining unit, the nurses filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board seeking an election. In January and February, the employer delayed the nurses’ election with more than 21 days of hearings questioning the NLRB in Boston as to who would be eligible for representation by the MNA.
The nurses were seeking an election for a bargaining unit compromising the 50 registered nurses who work at the psychiatric hospital. The hospital, in an attempt to stop the election and/or compromise its success, challenged the right of all but four of the nurses to unionize, claiming that they were supervisors and therefore ineligible for representation.
The NLRB agreed with the MNA and ruled that all the nurses MNA petitioned for at Pembroke Hospital were not supervisors and were therefore eligible for union representation. The election was held on June 13, 2002. The nurses voted, but the votes were impounded until the NLRB rules on the appeal. It has been months and the NLRB has yet to even take up the case for consideration.
“It is shameful for this employer to use funds that could be used for patient care and improvements in conditions for the nurses who care for patients to subsidize high priced lawyers and consultants whose only purpose is to deprive these nurses of their right to workplace democracy,” said Roland Goff, Director of Labor Relations for the MNA.
To help pressure the hospital to stop its wasteful spending to prevent a union, the nurses and the MNA have appealed to local legislators and congressman in the area to appeal to Pembroke management to accept the NLRB decision and allow the nurses to vote for a union.
Now it is going directly to the public to see if public pressure can force the hospital administration to change its anti-union stance.
The MNA, which represents more than 18,000 nurses working in more than 80 health care facilities in Massachusetts, represents nurses at nearly every hospital on the South Shore including Brockton Hospital, Good Samaritan Medical Center of Brockton, Quincy Medical Center, Jordan Hospital in Plymouth, Morton Hospital in Taunton, Falmouth Hospital and Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis.