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Labor Board Says Nurses Can Join Union at Sweet Brook (DS)

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By Tammy DanielsMarch 02, 2009
iBerkshires Staff

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Northern Berkshire Healthcare’s bid to keep what it describes as supervisory staff from becoming members of a bargaining unit at Sweet Brook Care Centers was rejected last Thursday.

In a 19-page decision, Rosemary Pye, director of the National Labor Board’s 1st Region, ruled that registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and lead certified nursing assistants will be eligible to vote in an upcoming union election.

"I find that the employer has failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that the nurses are Section 2(11) supervisors," she wrote.

The full decision, in PDF form here, also lays out election regulations and the possibility of two different units.

NBH Vice President of External Affairs Diane Cutillo said on Monday that the health-care system is appealing the decision to the National Labor Board in Washington.

The nursing home staff petitioned to join 1199 Service Employees Union International, which covers licensed practical nurses and other health care staff at North Adams Regional Hospital, in January. Union organizers and Sweet Brook officials were at loggerheads over whether nursing staff should be allowed to join the bargaining unit.

Last month, the sides spent nearly a week in Boston and Lowell providing testimony to the labor board. Sweet Brook staff and union organizers said NBH was wasting money on junkets and "high-priced lawyers"; health system officials said they wanted to ensure the local’s establishment was done correctly.

"Management at Sweet Brook has been doing everything in their power to prevent us from voting in a union election," said Betty Higley, a lead certified nursing assistant at Sweet Brook who attended the hearings, in a statement. "They kept us away from home for almost a week. Enough is enough. Let us vote!"

Cutillo said the election will likely happen within 30 days. "We don’t expect the appeal to delay the elections."

NBH, operating Sweet Brook as Northern Berkshire Community Services, argued that registered nurses, LPNs and "lead" certified nursing assistants have supervisory authority that would prevent them becoming union members. The 30 nurses and three CNAs had direct responsibility over other nursing assistants, it claimed.

Pye, however, said there was little evidence that the nurses met the criteria for having supervisory authority or responsibility for assigning, directing and disciplining CNAs, even though they are considered charge nurses. Nor, she said, were charge nurses held accountable for actions by certified nursing assistants.

"There is no evidence that a charge nurse has ever been disciplined or suffered other adverse consequences due to poor performance by a CNA or UA," Pye wrote. The same held true of the lead CNAs, she said.

In a statement sent to workers Friday afternoon, NBH CEO Richard Palmisano admitted he was not surprised by the decision, according to SEIU organizers, because "it’s typical for the NLRB to decide nurses are not supervisors … ."

That was the regional board, Cutillo pointed out. "The regional ruling said that nurses and others are not supervisors but there are two Supreme Court rulings establishing the supervisory status of nurses."

When asked about charge nurses at North Adams Regional, Cutillo said she believed their membership in the Massachusetts Nurses Association may predate the court rulings.

The overwhelming majority of eligible staff at Sweet Brook have already expressed in writing their support for forming a union election at the nursing home, according to SEIU spokesman Jeff Hall, who accused the NBH of launching an "aggressive campaign" against union advocates.

"We just really need to ensure our employees are fully informed," said Cutillo. "We are confident they are going  make the right decision for themselves and Sweet Brook."