Hospital workers vote to keep union
Accusations fly as months-long effort to boot SEIU from El Camino ends
After a contentious vote, overshadowed by accusations of procedural lapses and questionable tactics, service workers at El Camino Hospital turned down a proposal to decertify their union, a hospital official confirmed.
Members of the hospital's branch of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers chose not to decertify their union in a 599-357 vote, El Camino spokeswoman Chris Ernst announced on the evening of Jan. 10.
The outcome of the vote was cheered by those who feel the SEIU provides an invaluable service for hospital workers and bemoaned by those who say the union does little except collect dues.
Kary Lynch, a union steward, voted against the decertification of the SEIU, which he said has consistently worked in the interest of its members. Lynch said he was very pleased when he learned that the decertification effort had been rejected by what he viewed as a very healthy margin of 242 votes.
"We're pretty excited about that," Lynch said. "We're hoping that this vote sends a strong message to management that the members (of the SEIU at El Camino) are united."
Lynch has maintained all along that the decertification effort has been quietly, yet aggressively, supported and pushed by hospital management, whom he said would love nothing more than to see the dissolution of the SEIU.
It is a ludicrous charge, according to Paul Williams, who helped organize the initial petition to hold the decertification vote. The petition was signed by more than 500 SEIU members — well over the 30 percent required to hold a vote on the issue.
"The union pushed hard to make it an employee-versus-the-management election," Williams said. "That wasn't the reason for this election. This election was to bring the choice back to the workers."
For its part, the hospital denies taking sides. Charlene Gliniecki, chief of people officer for El Camino, said that anyone who thought the hospital was taking sides would be "hard pressed to prove that anything like that had happened at all."
Resentment over dues
Williams said he and many others at the hospital have resented being forced to pay dues to the SEIU — a union which represents a wide swath of El Camino employees, from janitors to dieticians. In exchange for the dues he pays, Williams said he rarely, if ever, has seen any meaningful action or help coming from the SEIU.
What he has seen, he said, is a union that continually and publicly vilifies the hospital administration.
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, he told the Voice in October 2011 about the successful decertification petition.
For evidence, Williams pointed to a flyer that was circulating at the time, which featured this quote from Lynch: "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."
"That's intimidation if I've ever seen it," Williams said.
It took more than two months from the time before the vote was held on Jan. 5. The ballot was delayed for a time by a legal action, brought by the SEIU, which claimed Williams and others had not followed protocol when collecting signatures for the petition.
During that time, Williams said, the anti-SEIU contingent lost momentum and the union "machine" was able to rally members.
The SEIU did this, he said, by sending staffers down to El Camino to talk to union members in break rooms and in the hallways about why they ought to vote no on decertification. According to Williams, the SEIU even sent people to members' homes.
"We don't have time to go beat the bushes," Williams said. "We have lives to save. We don't have time to be as organized."
Ballots were finally cast on Jan. 5, but the outcome of the months-long battle was delayed nearly another week, after the state administrator overseeing the collection of votes at El Camino's Los Gatos campus admitted that he had not checked each voter for identification.
Some demanded an investigation to ensure that no fraud had taken place, while others accused the hospital of conducting an investigation simply to delay the outcome.
"This is probably the most contentious that I've seen it," Lynch said, commenting on the state of relations among his own union members and with hospital administration.
While Williams said he thinks the hospital administration would treat him and other workers currently represented by the SEIU fairly with or without the the union, Lynch begs to differ.
He pointed to the 195 pink slips that were handed out to hospital employees, including nurses and SEIU members, in August 2010. The hospital initially said that 140 of those 195 employees put on notice would be laid off within 60 days. However, Lynch said, all SEIU members who received a layoff notice were able to remain working for El Camino. He credited his union for that positive outcome.