A labor union has made a major foray in the health care sector in Portland with a razor-thin vote that took nearly two months to decide and could yet be contested.
About 800 employees at Providence Portland Medical Center in Northeast Portland voted in December on joining SEIU Local 49, the Portland-based Service Employees International Union. But the ballots from the center’s technical and clerical workers were too close to call. Several dozen ballots were challenged.
In the end, just one vote determined the outcome.
Last Thursday the National Labor Relations Board upheld a final tally: 384 voted in favor of unionization and 383 were against.
“It’s so exciting to have these 800 Providence Portland Medical Center workers vote to join our union,” SEIU Local 49 President Meg Niemi said. “We’ve been meeting with and talking to workers about the ways they want to improve the quality of care and stop the erosion of wages and benefits.”
In an emailed statement, a Providence spokeswoman said the hospital system was keeping its options open, including a possible challenge of the vote total.
“We are considering our next steps. We have until March 7 to appeal the recommendation to the regional director of the (board) in Seattle,” spokeswoman Jean Marks said. “In addition, both sides have the right to have the regional director's decision reviewed by the (board’s) national office. Throughout this process, we have said we fully support that every properly cast ballot must be counted if they are within the defined scope for the election. We made that pledge to our caregivers, and we remain committed to it.”
Niemi said the Providence workers are circulating bargaining surveys to their coworkers to compile the most pressing needs to raise in contract negotiations, which she said the union hopes to start “as soon as possible.”
Workers have already raised quality of care issues like understaffing, Niemi said, as well as wages below other regional hospital systems and high-deductible employee health insurance plans. The newly unionized workers include certified nursing assistants, patient registration representatives, pharmacy technicians, phlebotomists, dietary and housekeeping staff, among others.
“We hope Providence won’t find ways to delay getting to the negotiating table so workers have a voice,” Niemi said.
In pushing for unionization at the center, SEIU took the unusual step of filing a complaint with the Oregon Attorney General’s Office asking for an investigation of high executive pay at Providence. It pointed to $1 million-plus salaries paid to 28 executives, including a more-than $10 million pay and benefits package to Rod Hochman – president and CEO of Providence St. Joseph Health, the seven-state system of 51 hospitals
Providence says its executive pay is justified and follows state and federal laws. The Oregon Attorney General’s Office hasn’t said whether it would investigate.
The union vote at the center is one of several victories SEIU Local 49 has notched in recent years. Last summer at Providence Milwaukie Hospital in Oregon, less than 200 nursing assistants, dietary aides, environmental services workers and others voted to join SEIU – its first successful organization in the 24,000-employee, eight-hospital Oregon Providence chain. The sides are in contract negotiations.
SEIU Local 49 scored its biggest recent victory in 2015, when a successful vote put 1,000 tech workers, nursing assistants, clerks and other similar staff at PeaceHealth hospitals in Springfield and Eugene under SEIU representation. The sides reached a contract in 2016. At the time, the union stressed that the three-year contract won on average 21 percent pay increases for employees over the contract’s duration. The contract includes a total of 5.5 percent in cost of living raises plus annual step increases as high as 3.5 percent a year.
Roughly 800 Legacy Health workers represented by SEIU were on the verge of striking in 2017, meanwhile, before the two sides approved a contract at the last minute providing access to a full-time financial and insurance assistance counselor.
Niemi dismissed concerns that the one-vote margin would diminish the union’s bargaining power. She said support for unionization remained strong over the year that SEIU and Providence hospital workers prepared for the vote.
Hospital workers “receive a lot of opposition from employers in the health industry to joining” a union, Niemi said, “but you can absolutely see a huge difference in what workers are able to achieve in a union than not. I feel confident the support for the union will continue to increase post-election.”
You can reach Elon Glucklich at [email protected].