Burst of labor organizing in local health care sector defies long-term trend of falling U.S. union participation | Local

Lorie Quinn, a housekeeper at Sacred Heart hospital in Springfield, feels the power of unions today, on this public holiday honoring the American labor movement.

In a historic vote two years ago, she and over 1,000 of her co-workers at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Centers in Eugene and Springfield voted to join SEIU Local 49.

It was the largest group of newly organized Oregon health care workers in nearly 20 years.

Since the vote, the union’s local PeaceHealth ranks surged to 1,300, most recently with the addition of 100 PeaceHealth Laboratories workers and 180 workers at PeaceHealth Peace Harbor Medical Center in Florence, according to union and PeaceHealth officials.

PeaceHealth is a Catholic nonprofit health system based in Vancouver, Wash.

Then last month, workers at nine Eugene Urgent Care clinics voted to join SEIU Local 49. But the outcome of the 153 votes cast was too close to call, and is under review by the National Labor Relations Board.

Eugene Urgent Care is a private company owned by about a dozen doctors.

SEIU Local 49 is growing stronger as it adds more members, said Quinn, a housekeeper at Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend and a union executive board member.

“It’s really encouraging to be part of a bigger community where there’s more of us joining the union,” she said. “We have a stronger bond and more say in what’s going on in our community. With us getting our increase in wages, it helps our whole economy, it helps morale and it helps our working conditions.”

This recent burst of union activity in Lane County’s health care sector is bucking the long-term trend of falling union participation in the U.S. workforce.

Despite this uptick in organizing, though, union workers are a relatively small slice of Lane County’s overall workforce — about 20 percent.

Union participation is greatest in the public sector, where nearly 62 percent of Lane County workers are represented by a union, according to 2015 estimates from unionstats.com., a database created by Barry Hirsch of Georgia State University and David Macpherson of Trinity University.

That figure has nearly doubled since 1986, boosted by public-sector organizing efforts, including the high-profile creation of a union of 1,800 University of Oregon faculty in 2013.

Union participation in Lane County’s private sector is about 11 percent — much lower than in the county’s public sector, unionstats.com figures show.

That makes the recent gains in the private health care sector “all the more noteworthy,” said Bob Bussel, director of the Labor Education Research Center (LERC) at the University of Oregon.

“It’s a testimony of the issues involved and the determination and skill of the unions that have helped those workers organize,” he said.

“Given the nature of employment law and the resistance employers put up … (organizing in the private sector is) a much harder hill to climb,” Bussel said.

The 40-year-old LERC is a public program that provides teaching, research, consultation and technical assistance to unions and other organizations interested in employment issues.

Bussel said the health care industry is a hot spot for union organizing for many reasons.

In general, health care organizations are rooted to their communities, which gives health care workers more bargaining power. Some health care services can be contracted out, but overall, hospitals and clinics aren’t as vulnerable as some industries are of being moved to lower-cost communities or shipped off-shore, he said.

Health care is a volatile, changing industry, which has led to employee concern about adequate staffing and the quality of patient care, Bussel said.

“I think more people will look for protection in a industry that is uncertain, and a voice not just for themselves but for the quality of patient care,” he said.

Employees who work in nursing homes and who work in patients’ homes also have been organizing to improve conditions for themselves and for their patients, Bussel said.

Finally, unions in health care organizations have become more visible locally, and that helps spur more organizing, he said.

SEIU Local 49 “won that large victory at PeaceHealth, and they’ve been really visible representing (about 300) workers at McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center (in Springfield),” Bussel said. “They’re a known and respected institution in the community. I think more workers, when considering how to have a voice, look to SEIU and others.”

Quinn, the RiverBend housekeeper, said she appreciates that she and her co-workers now have a voice at work.

“Our managers can’t just make unilateral decisions that affect us about working conditions, start times and end times,” she said. “They have to talk with us first. Workers feel like they’re actually listened to.”

The union also has helped increase wages and improve working conditions, Quinn said.

She said her wages will increase 21 percent over the three-year union contract.

Quinn, who has worked at Sacred Heart for five years, said wages of housekeepers and food service workers with even more years of experience saw larger increases that “were literally life-changing.”

“You hear stories of people who were able to refinance their home loans, get lower interest rates and it freed up more money for them,” she said.

PeaceHealth officials were not available Friday to comment for this story.

In 2015, after the first wave of over 1,000 Sacred Heart hospital workers voted to organize, Marie Stehmer, director of human resources at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center, said in a release: “We are disappointed that some of our caregivers chose to be represented by SEIU Local 49, as we prefer to maintain a direct and unrestricted relationship regarding conditions of employment.

“However, we acknowledge and respect the majority decision of those caregivers who voted this week.”

Workers at PeaceHealth Laboratories, one of the most recent groups to join SEIU Local 49, began organizing after PeaceHealth announced that Quest Diagnostics, a large New Jersey-based for-profit lab company, would manage Sacred Heart’s labs, union spokeswoman Rae Dunnaville said.

The change led to layoffs, and the workers had no say in the layoff process, she said.

Now, under the union contract, generally workers with the most seniority will be the last to be laid off, said Steven Ward, SEIU Local 49’s health care director.

“There’s a set of rules now, so management can’t just pick and choose who they want to stay and who they want to go,” he said.

The union also negotiated wage scales for PeaceHealth Laboratories workers. They will see an average increase of over 11 percent through 2019, when the contract expires, Dunnaville said.

In general, union workers in the United States have higher wages than their nonunion counterparts, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Full-time union health care support workers had median weekly earnings of $602, which was $82 more than for non-union workers, the figures show.

Full-time union food service workers had median weekly earnings of $597, which was $138 more than non-union workers, according to the BLS data.

Two occupations that did not pay union workers more than non-union workers were sales and management, business and financial operations, the BLS figures show.

Ward predicts the burst of labor activity in health care will continue and will spread to other industries.

“The gap between the wealthy and the poor in this country is getting worse, and I think workers beyond health care are really looking at how they can figure out how to have a voice and make sure they have fair wages and fair treatment,” he said.

Follow Sherri on Twitter @sburimcdonald . Email sherri@registerguard.com .

More Labor articles »

Nurses: The Oregon Nurses Association represents about 1,300 registered nurses at the two Sacred Heart hospitals, plus 100 nurses in home care and hospice in Eugene-Springfield, and about 80 nurses at PeaceHealth Peace Harbor hospital in Florence

Hospital and lab workers: SEIU Local 49 represents about 1,300 workers, including about 100 PeaceHealth Laboratories workers and 180 workers at Peace Harbor hospital in Florence

Facilities: The International Union of Operating Engineers represents about 50 workers who operate and maintain PeaceHealth’s facilities

Doctors: About 40 hospitalists — doctors who provide round-the-clock care at Sacred Heart hospitals — are represented by the American Federation of Teachers

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