GUEST OPINION: Memorial hospital and right to organize

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act, legislation that extended basic labor rights to American workers, including the rights to organize, to bargain collectively and to strike for fair wages, benefits and workplace safety.

However, as the attempt by workers to organize a union at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital demonstrates, Americans have little cause to celebrate. Today, American workers are systematically denied their basic labor rights.

The organizing campaign by Memorial Hospital workers is representative of how labor law is failing American workers. What are the facts?

In December 2009, the National Labor Relations Board conducted an election at the hospital, which is owned and operated by St. Joseph's Health System, to determine if nearly 700 employees desired union representation. The election was the culmination of a six-year campaign led by an organizing committee of several dozen veteran Memorial employees.

After a review of contested ballots, the NLRB declared, this past January, that the National Union of Health Care Workers had received a solid majority of the votes cast. Management asked the labor board to nullify the results, alleging unfair labor practices by the union. A four-day hearing was conducted in April. Witnesses were questioned by attorneys for both sides about alleged intimidation of voters and improper campaigning near polling places by the union.

In May, administrative law judge William Schmidt dismissed management's objections and directed management to begin contract negotiations with the union. St. Joseph's appealed this decision to the five-member NLRB, which is appointed by the president. It may be more than a year before the board can review the judge's decision. If the board rejects the unfair labor practices charges, management can delay union recognition for several more years by appealing to the federal courts.

What is going on here? Over the last two decades, Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner has studied the gradual erosion of labor protections for American workers. She has documented the legal and illegal tactics of employers to thwart unionization.

In a 2009 study, Bronfenbrenner found that the National Labor Relations Act no longer prevents intimidation, surveillance, retaliation and firings of workers who attempt to organize a union. More than 20,000 workers are illegally discharged or disciplined each year for union activity.

Furthermore, she reported that in 37 percent of the successful organizing campaigns, workers fail to win a first contract within two years. There are no effective penalties for intransigent employers that refuse to recognize a union chosen by majority vote and who resist negotiating a first contract.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has recognized the inadequate federal protections for worker's rights. In June 2009, the bishops released principles for Catholic health care institutions intended to guide labor relations and safeguard worker's rights. The principles state that the "union and the employer will honor the results of an election" and that both parties after the election will "immediately begin working in good faith to reach a collective bargaining agreement." The Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese has adopted these principles. Why can't St. Joseph's?

These delaying tactics are part of a systematic campaign to deny Memorial workers their right to form a union. Further delay will erode trust and good will between labor and management, undermine effective communication in the workplace and contribute to declining employee morale.

St. Joseph's should drop all legal appeals and commence bargaining with the NUHW. Management should join other major employers in the region, such as PG&E, Kaiser Permanente, and the Council on Aging, that have built partnerships with unions to develop a high-performance workplace characterized by increased productivity, high levels of employee morale - and most importantly, an improved quality of services.

As Melissa Bosanco, a Memorial oncology care partner, "We voted NUHW because we wanted a voice to make our hospital a better place to work and a better place for our community to get care."

Martin J. Bennett teaches American history at Santa Rosa Junior College.

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