U-Fairview union in the works

by Kelly Wittman

Hot on the heels of University professors’ rejection of a union, staff members of the University-Fairview Medical Center might soon find themselves with a union election of their own.
Not only did the University Hospital change from being a publicly held institution when it merged with Fairview Health System on Jan. 6, its employees also shifted to the private sector.
Now officials in the Association of Federal State County and Municipal Employees must work under different rules for bargaining with a private entity.
Geoff Hahn, president of the AFSCME unit that formerly represented University Hospital employees, said an election for a new union could take place as soon as March if Fairview and AFSCME representatives can agree on election dates and on the composition of bargaining units.
AFSCME union contracts and membership did not transfer with University employees who became Fairview employees as a result of the merger. Hahn said these employees still want union representation to guarantee that they will have working conditions similar to the ones they had as University employees.
Changes in vacation pay, health insurance premiums and wages have led to an increased interest in the union, even among people who were not members of the union before, Hahn said. Previously, AFSCME represented 1,100 employees at University Hospital. AFSCME officers expect to increase membership by about 400 if they win the right to bargain for Fairview-University employees.
More than half of the staff eligible to sign collective-bargaining cards had done so in early January, Hahn said. The signatures of only 30 percent of those eligible would have been sufficient. As a result, AFSCME can ask the National Labor Relations Board to call for an election to determine whether AFSCME will continue to represent workers at the bargaining table.
Hahn said because Fairview is a private employer and the University is public, AFSCME has to reorganize under private sector laws.
“If another public employer had bought the hospital, we could have continued on,” Hahn said.
The contracts between the three AFSCME units and one Teamsters unit representing University Hospital employees also included people who are still University employees, said Jeanette Louden, the Human Relations transition representative for the University-Fairview merger. The employees’ contracts will continue under the same conditions, and AFSCME will continue to represent them. However, only a small number of people fall into this situation.
Gladys McKenzie, business representative for AFSCME council six, suggested the University won’t put as much effort into honoring AFSCME contracts as it will contracts with Fairview. “I’m quite sure the University will be able to honor all of its contracts with regard to the sale of the hospital but is unable to honor its union contracts,” she said.
However, those contracts were with the University and not Fairview Health System, said Fairview spokesperson Jean Tracy.
The mediation process for private sector employees who wish to form a union is different from the process for public employees, like University faculty members. For example, no cease and desist order has been issued by the labor relations board, said Ron Sharp, director for Region 18 of the National Labor Relations Board. Also, Fairview, unlike members of the University Board of Regents before the faculty union vote, has no legal obligation to maintain conditions of employment. The employer must carry on business as if no petition for union election has been filed, Sharp said.
McKenzie said Fairview has already made big changes in employment. She said she has heard from people who have taken as much as a $400 loss in income per pay period.
Private sector employees who wish to organize a union are placed into one of eight bargaining units defined by trade. McKenzie said Fairview must decide whether the new employees will unionize under this system or the former system at the University.