Tuesday, May 6, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The reputation of one of Nevada’s largest unions is on the line as 1,100 registered nurses at three St. Rose Dominican hospitals vote today and Wednesday on whether to retain the Service Employees International Union as their bargaining representative — or join a rival union.
The election also threatens to widen a fissure between the SEIU, the country’s largest union, and the AFL-CIO, its largest labor federation.
For the past few months, the rival California Nurses Association has sent organizers into the Las Vegas Valley hospitals to woo registered nurses away from the SEIU, which represents 17,500 health care and public sector employees in Nevada. A win in this week’s election would embolden the CNA to encroach further on SEIU territory.
The CNA claims there is strength in a nurses-only union. It also says it brings unprecedented bargaining power because it represents 10,500 nurses employed by Catholic Healthcare West, owner of the St. Rose Dominican hospitals.
Some CNA supporters at St. Rose say that despite winning strong contracts, the SEIU has failed to enforce the contracts in the workplace. They also complain about a recent increase in health care premiums for some St. Rose nurses as a result of changes negotiated by an SEIU local in California.
The SEIU counters that “wall-to-wall” representation in hospitals is best for workers and patient care. It also says the contract it negotiated with St. Rose is one of the best hospital contracts in the country, complete with enforceable staffing ratios.
Both sides are now at the bargaining table, and the SEIU says it is fighting to extend those enforceable ratios to ancillary staff. Also on the service union’s wish list are a 6 percent raise and resolving the health insurance dispute.
SEIU leaders say switching unions could be a risky proposition for nurses, especially as they find themselves fighting management at the bargaining table over a series of givebacks, including changes in attendance and staffing policies. If the CNA wins, the existing SEIU contract would remain in effect up to a year while the California nurses negotiate their own pact with management. The new union, however, would be starting from scratch, SEIU leaders say.
For the SEIU, much is at stake. Members have complained about a lack of internal union democracy. The Labor Department is investigating a disputed 2007 officer election.
The battle has intensified over the past week, with the CNA catering meals for nurses and the SEIU dispatching former CNA President Helen Miramontes to hospitals to speak out against her former union.
In an interview with the Sun on Monday, Miramontes said CNA’s actions in Las Vegas were more befitting a “union-busting outfit” than a labor organization.
Each union is also battling for votes online, with competing Web sites featuring testimonials from Las Vegas nurses.
Although both sides are reluctant to make predictions or characterize their level of support, the SEIU has released a campaign poster with 400-plus head shots of supporters. For its part, the CNA gathered at least 300 signatures for its election petition in March.
Although the SEIU has the backing of the Nevada AFL-CIO and local labor leaders, its leaders say pleas to the national labor federation have been unsuccessful. SEIU Nevada Executive Director Jane McAlevey said the union’s petition for an anti-raiding hearing in Washington, D.C., was denied.
Richard Hurd, a labor relations expert at Cornell University, said that decision and the battle at St. Rose could further the divide between the SEIU and the AFL-CIO on the national stage.
The SEIU and four other unions broke off from the AFL-CIO in 2005 because of disagreement over how best to increase union membership. Since then, the CNA has joined the AFL-CIO.
In recent months, the long-running feud between the SEIU and the CNA has become more intense. The CNA disrupted the SEIU’s attempt to organize eight hospitals in Ohio in March. Then a labor conference in Michigan last month turned into a melee after the SEIU sent busloads of members to protest a speech by CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro.
This week’s election at St. Rose is even more pitched, because the CNA is seeking to poach existing SEIU members. As a result, the SEIU has threatened to withdraw its locals from state AFL-CIO affiliates if the labor federation’s president, John Sweeney, doesn’t intervene to prevent CNA raids, Hurd said.
That puts Sweeney in a tough position. Despite the split on the national level, many SEIU locals — including SEIU Nevada — have forged alliances with state AFL-CIOs. If the service workers’ locals pulled out, it would further the national divide and could mean diminished clout and financial reserves for the AFL-CIO, Hurd said.
“If CNA wins and the AFL-CIO doesn’t get involved, then it is likely SEIU will follow through on its threat,” Hurd said.