Friday, May 9, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The Service Employees International Union suffered a clear vote of no confidence this week as registered nurses it represents at three St. Rose Dominican hospitals voted in greater — though still inconclusive — numbers to join a rival union.
Although the California Nurses Association earned more votes — 400 (49.8 percent) to the SEIU’s 377 (46.9 percent) — in the Tuesday and Wednesday balloting, the SEIU will continue to represent 1,100 nurses at the hospitals because a victory requires more than 50 percent of the vote.
Neither side met that threshold because 26 nurses voted for no union representation and six other votes have been contested. Federal labor officials will investigate the six votes to determine their validity. Unless the CNA receives at least five of the contested votes, a runoff election without the option for no union representation will be scheduled.
The election revealed strong dissatisfaction with the SEIU among nurses at St. Rose — and is the most recent blow to one of Nevada’s largest unions.
SEIU Nevada has been rocked by a string of controversies, including a Labor Department investigation into a contested union officer election last year. The union also failed to help deliver a victory for its endorsed candidate, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, in Nevada’s presidential caucus in January.
The setbacks signal diminished union leadership clout and raise questions about solidarity among the 17,500 health care and public sector workers SEIU Nevada represents.
The election exposes division among the rank and file as the union negotiates a new contract with Catholic Healthcare West, owner of St. Rose Dominican hospitals. The union is pushing for higher standards such as staffing ratios for support staff and an end to last-minute shift cancellations for nurses. SEIU officials say St. Rose management has been hostile to their proposals.
The election results are likely to embolden the SEIU’s longtime rival, which defeated the service workers union in a race to represent 500 nurses at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Reno in December.
“This historic vote is a window to a rebellion brewing among SEIU nurses across the nation,” CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro said.
She said the CNA, which represents 80,000 members in several states, has received calls and e-mails from SEIU nurses coast to coast, including those at other Las Vegas hospitals.
Labor experts say the local is a microcosm of the national SEIU, whose leaders are engaged in a heated debate about how to best grow membership without neglecting the needs of existing members.
“Clearly this could not have happened without discontent inside those hospitals,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Still, SEIU Nevada Executive Director Jane McAlevey said, she doesn’t think St. Rose nurses are unhappy with the union. She attributed the results to what she called “dirty campaign” tactics and empty promises from the CNA. CNA officials denied those accusations.
The SEIU used a similar argument when the CNA obtained more than 300 signatures to qualify for an election. At that time, SEIU officials said nurses were misled about what they were signing, even though the card the CNA asked nurses to sign clearly identified its purpose.
Asked how so many nurses were fooled again, McAlevey said: “Smart people do stupid (expletive).”
Andy Stern, the union’s international president, has been aware of the local’s turmoil. He sent a representative to Nevada to mediate infighting after last year’s internal union election — an effort that failed.
He issued a statement Thursday criticizing the CNA for wasting “time and resources on efforts to re-organize the already organized” and offered to sign a no-raid agreement with the CNA.
Labor experts have questioned why the CNA is focusing on SEIU nurses when 86 percent of the nation’s hospital workers are not unionized. The Nevada AFL-CIO and local labor leaders have condemned the CNA’s actions here.
CNA officials counter that the SEIU also is raiding unions. At a hospital in New York, for example, the SEIU is seeking to oust the New York State Nurses Association.