Union comes back to work at Med Center

Jennifer Niemela

After almost five months on their own, former University workers at Fairview-University Medical Center voted to renew their severed ties to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
By a vote of 523-452, tabulated by the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday, after two days of balloting, the former union members chose to rejoin AFSCME.
The workers, whom AFSCME represented for more than two decades at the University, lost their union status in January when the former University Hospital was privatized in a merger with Fairview Health Systems. The board held the election to determine whether the 1,300 service, maintenance and technical workers wanted AFSCME to represent them again.
The election divided workers into two units, representing service and maintenance workers and technical employees.
“I’m relieved,” said nursing assistant Robert K. Elliott. “This is a restoration of justice. We shouldn’t have had to go through this.”
Fairview administrators on hand when the results were announced refused to comment, pending an official press release today.
Since AFSCME’s former contract was dissolved by the merger, workers will have to negotiate a new one. The negotiations won’t begin for several months. Until then, the union will reorganize itself, elect officials and canvass workers to determine which issues to push in negotiations.
While union activists were celebrating their victory, some hospital employees remained skeptical about the progress AFSCME could make.
“What they say sounds good, but I don’t think it’s possible,” said linen service employee Kent Herbst, who noted that he would have liked to give Fairview management a chance before joining a union again. “It seems like (management) looks out for the needs of employees. We’re not just counted as numbers here.”
Herbst cited a 3 percent cost-of-living increase that the hospital implemented May 1 as one of the reasons Fairview’s management was good enough for him. However, some union activists said Fairview granted the raise to convince employees to vote against the union.
“It was a transparent ploy,” said Elliott. “If there wasn’t an election, there’d be no raise.”
There was minor confusion in some departments regarding who could vote. Because the merger caused some employees’ job classifications to change, their voting eligibility was questionable and their classifications weren’t listed on the board’s voting list.
“We thought that if it was a union vote, we’d be voting. It was confusing,” said account specialist and former AFSCME member Lynne Okani, who had expected to vote but learned at the polling place that she was not eligible.
However, these employees were allowed to cast a “challenge ballot,” said acting director Richard R. Anderson.
In large elections, voters with uncertain eligibility are allowed to vote but their ballots are not counted, he said. In the event that the margin of victory in the election is smaller than the number of challenge ballots, the sealed votes are counted. If their ballots are counted, the eligibility of each voter is investigated by the labor board.
Once the board deems a voter to be eligible, that worker becomes a part of the bargaining unit.
“This is normal in the course of these business proceedings,” Anderson said. He would have been surprised had the vote been close enough to warrant counting the challenge ballots, he added.
Despite the challenge ballots, however, federal observers said the election went smoothly.