Battle brewing over El Camino's union
Union challenging petition to dump SEIU at hospital
More than 30 percent of El Camino Hospital's service workers have signed a petition calling for the removal of the very union that represents them, the Service Employees International Union, according to a hospital officials.
In an email, El Camino spokeswoman Chris Ernst wrote that the hospital received a decertification petition on Oct. 7, with "signatures of more than 30 percent of SEIU-represented employees, indicating that the union has lost the support of the employees and they no longer desire to be represented by SEIU." Ernst said that the signatures on the petition have been independently verified by an outside party.
The petition has been a long time coming according to two of the men who signed the document. "What am I getting for my money?" asked Robert De Salvo. "I'm getting absolutely zero."
De Salvo said he has been with the hospital for 25 years — long before the union "forced" its way in about 10 years ago. Not much has changed since then, he said, adding that, as far as he can tell, the only thing the union is interested in is collecting dues.
According to decertification supporter and eight-year El Camino veteran Paul Williams, now that the petition has demonstrated substantial employee discontent with the union, a vote will be taken in the coming weeks to determine whether the SEIU will stay or go — that is, if the SEIU doesn't succeed in blocking the action.
The legitimacy of the move has been challenged by SEIU officials and members. Lilly Vallee, a director with the hospital division of the SEIU, said El Camino Hospital has yet to provide sufficient documentation proving that a third party verified the signatures. SEIU lawyer Bruce A. Harland is taking issue with the language of the petition — claiming in a request for injunctive relief with the Public Employment Relations Board of California that the language of the petition was vague and that hospital managers instructed subordinates to sign the petition.
"Once all legal objections, which we believe are significant, are resolved, and once a third party has verified the threshold has been met, we have no problem with a democratic election," Vallee said. "In this case we do not believe the rules have been followed."
One member of the SEIU, Kary Lynch, hinted at suspicions that the hospital may secretly be backing the petition.
It was "too much of a coincidence" that the petition would come so soon after the hospital and the SEIU reached an impasse in contract negotiations, Lynch said at a recent El Camino board meeting. The hospital made its "last, best and final offer" to the union just one day before announcing its receipt of the petition.
A poster emblazoned with Lynch's face and the headline "Something stinks at El Camino Hospital" has been posted on bulletin boards around the hospital. Below the headline, a chronology of the hospital's final offer and announcement of the petition are given before "Just a coincidence? Not likely." The poster includes an excerpt of the speech he delivered at the October board meeting. "Management will do just about anything to get rid of our union, because they know it's the only thing that stands between them and the cuts they want to make to our benefits and wages," Lynch said.
Ernst has denied that any administrators pushed the petition in any way.
The poster with Lynch's face reminds Williams of all the reasons he signed the decertification petition in the first place. "Very classy," he sarcastically wrote in the email containing an image of the flyer. "This is what we are used to here."
Williams said that the SEIU has created a "divisive" atmosphere at the hospital — seeking to inspire an "us versus them" attitude at every turn. The union aims to keep its members fearful of the hospital administration, so they will remain loyal and pay their dues on time.
By way of example, he pointed to an SEIU-UHW poster, which reads, "Voting 'No Union' means: ... Management can fire or lay us off at any time for any reason." Such statements irk Williams. "Obviously that's not true," he said, incredulously. "You can't be laid off for any old reason."
While all of these things have bothered Williams for some time, he said the final straw came on June 28 when the SEIU narrowly voted to become a "closed shop" — meaning that anyone hired at the hospital that is not a doctor, a nurse or an administrator must join the union and pay dues. About 600 members voted; the measure passed by fewer than 20 votes.
"The middle of the summer is the slowest time for the hospital," Williams said, adding that it is his belief the union intentionally picked a day it knew few people, other than the hardcore union supporters, were likely to show up.
Lynch, a union steward who has worked at the hospital for 30 years, said that before the union was at El Camino it was possible that some might be fired based upon unsubstantiated claims. As a steward, Lynch said he has personally seen managers bring charges against an employee that were unfounded and has defended the employee. "Because that process exists, that person still has a job," he said.
It is because of services such as these that Lynch believes the union is important. "We don't view ourselves as a dues-collection agency," he said. "We represent the employees of the hospital."
Lynch stands by the statement he made at the hospital's board meeting and remains convinced that the petition for decertification is part of a concerted effort by hospital administration to thwart the union.
Both Williams and De Salvo, however, insist that the hospital administration had nothing to do with the petition, which Williams said was started by hospital employee Ted Prario and signed by more than 500 people (an exact number could not be confirmed before press time).
Like Lynch — who is currently advocating an initiative that would place a legislative cap on managerial salaries at the hospital — Williams and De Salvo are upset by what they feel are exorbitant salaries paid to El Camino administrators.
Yet when De Salvo hears the union talking about how much the hospital's CEO makes and comparing it to his salary, he feels the same way Williams does when he looks at the "Something stinks" poster.
"What they're trying to do is drive a wedge between 'us and them,'" De Salvo said. "Look what these guys are getting, and look what you're getting. This is good PR. That's all it is."
Vallee said that she has heard complaints such as those voiced by Williams and De Salvo before. However, she maintains that her union does provide a valuable service to its members.
She acknowledged that vote for the closed shop — or, as she calls it "agency shop" — was close. "Fundamentally, union members at El Camino Hospital want to continue to have a voice in their working conditions and have a competitive standard of living," she said. Without SEIU representation, she said, the hospital would work to strip workers of their voice, pay them less and systematically reduce their benefits.
Neither Williams nor De Salvo think of themselves as "union members." They are simply El Camino employees, they said. If they had their druthers they wouldn't be in a union at all, and certainly not one like the SEIU, which is governed by a national organization, they said.
Both men said that if there were to be a union at El Camino it should be one that was formed and controlled by the employees of the hospital, and, above all, that the employees should have a say as to whether they are involved or not.
"I just feel people should have a choice, that's all," Williams said. "People should have free will, but we don't have that right now."