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Aug 2011: No Time Limit How to Organize an Entire Hospital

04 Feb

By: Ricardo Torres

Confessions of a union organizer

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As I sat at my desk writing my thoughts about the proposed changes tothe union election process in a letter to the National Labor Relations Board in order to put my objections into public record, I began reflecting on the time I testified to Congress (Kennedy/Miller Committee) with regards to the Employee Free Choice Act (H.R. 800). During my testimony I was asked how the speed of a union election is beneficial to the employee voting for representation.

Ricardo Torres – President & CEO

A picture of an iceberg flashed into my mind. You see, in a union election campaign (from the union’s perspective), 90% of the bulk of the action is the part of the berg that lies under the waterline. As a matter of fact and in my own personal experience, the union wins elections by keeping 90% of the election underwater, out of sight from management.

There is no set timeline on behalf of the union for their pre-petition organizing efforts. The timeline starts when employee contact is made and ends with an election. An organizers timeline is determined by the time span needed to build enough support to win an election, with enough of that support left over to compensate for the amount of votes from those employees who may be swayed by management to vote in favor of the company. All of this activity happens below the surface where it cannot be detected. This activity is taking place whilethe union organizer hides in the dark and eats away at your manager’s relationship with your employees before ambushing your organization witha petition (their legal sucker punch). I am so adamant about maintaining employer rights to educate employees during the current average of 40 days post petition to election because the union has an unlimited campaign period before filing a petition.

The following is an account of a particular campaign that I led wherewe spent over a year building support. During this time we turned good employees against the company and destroyed any goodwill that existed between the employees and management. This is not an isolated campaign; there are plenty of others. This “Confession” serves as a warning that as a corporate leader, you should act now and provide your own opinion to the NLRB to protect your ability to communicate effectively with youremployees if a union organizer ever confronts your organization. When Iwas a union official, I would come at you hard with no mercy. Trust me,there are still plenty of sharks out there who have taken my place.

After I established the merger between the USW and the California Nurses Association (also known as the Health Care Workers Alliance), with USW President, Leo Gerard and other key members of the executive staff, we had an aggressive healthcare organizing battle plan that was to start in California followed by the rest of the country. One of our first targets was Long Beach Memorial Hospital in Long Beach, California. We had workers in each hospital within this healthcare system interested in joining the union but we needed a starting point. We chose Long Beach Memorial because it was the flagship within the healthcare system. By going after the flagship hospital, we could force the others to fall into place with greater ease while building more leverage over the heads of management in contract negotiations. The California Nurses Association lost the first election (prior to the merger), which made us even more determined to win the 2nd election. Theagreement in place was that the CNA and the USW were to organize nursesand all other categories together within the targeted system. We workedcollectively to ensure that all units were successfully organized. Thiswas a big deal to the union leadership as Long Beach Memorial was one of the largest private hospitals in Los Angeles County (and the West Coast) with more than 1,300 nurses and a large amount of non-professional workers in other units. We had at least a year to ensure we could win.

I met with Rosanne DeMoro (Executive Director of the California Nurses Association) and her Organizing Director, along with the top organizers who were there on the ground. We put together a strategy thatwould certainly take the hospital by storm. First we set up a Health Care Workers Alliance headquarters for Southern California. We took 40 additional unionized healthcare workers off on contractual union leave to help organize along side with other full time professional organizers. We also brought in every retirement sub-union group into play so that when the election got heated we would have additional inside “agitators”.

The first thing we did after our prep work was completed was to examine everything that was done wrong with the first election. We reevaluated the internal organizing committee and we reevaluated our ratings for the nurses involved in the election. Ultimately, we replacedmost of the organizers involved in the first campaign and brought in newer (and tougher) blood and we were prepared to spill it at our pace and on our schedule. We were prepared to treat the organizing campaign as a marathon that we could fix to win.

Our plan was to get extremely aggressive and surprise the hospital, catch them off guard and ultimately get them off track. There was already a lot of anger in the hospital because management subscribed to a “scorched earth” strategy towards the union in the first campaign. People in both factions (pro-union and pro-company) thought managements attitude and behavior during the first campaign was sub-professional andblamed the hospital for hiring a firm that left so much destruction behind after the campaign, (something that, as President of Permanent Solutions, I will not tolerate), that professional as well as personal relationships were torn apart with no plan in place to repair them and move forward. We carefully dissected all of the groups and assigned organizers based on race and gender. To further place the CEO and management off guard, we had a group of strong union supporters reach out to the CEO, set up a meeting and form a committee with management tomove forward to rebuild the relationships that were destroyed after theelection. This was a ruse of course. We were actually building a hard-core group of supporters but this time it would be different. This time is was not just nurses; it was all of the workers in every unit.

We directed handpicked traveling (pro-union) nurses to target Long Beach Memorial to seek out and/or create issues, especially with key people who supported management in the past. Their job was to befriend pro-management supporters and get inside their heads, make them support the union or at least get them to back off for the sake of “friendship”. We built a strong radical group of supporters throughout the hospital. We spent over 3 months befriending the key nurses, building friendships with them and their families, taking them to dinner and drinks and had many weekend barbecues while we were building support and strategies. Werotated the organizers shifts and kept them on point with their assignments. We infiltrated the hospital day and night. We put many pro-union retirees in volunteer positions throughout the hospital. Our retiree army would schedule “medical checkups” where they had pro-union messages to pass along as they went through the examination process (Have you ever counted how many people you come in contact with during amedical checkup in the hospital?). Our organizers moved through he hospital unnoticed by using the stairwells where key nurses would introduce us to the “informal leaders” in every department.

We were a fine tuned machine, working in the hospital and building a strong organizing committee in all categories within the system. After a year of intense organizing, we once again filed an election petition for the nurses and surprised management. However, this time the nurses were much more radical. Our plan was builtaround the rationalization that we could organize nurses first, with the other seven units getting there turn during the chaos of negotiations.

We had nurses refusing to attend management training (if they did go it was only to harass any nurses who did go to the classes, who were dubbed as traitors by their pro-union nursing peers). We had charge nurses who sympathized with the union movement. The charge nurses actually would turn the other way and/or give pro-management supporters ahard time if they reported pro-union supporters for organizing activityon the clock. Most pro-management supporters simply gave up, giving us open organizing activity on the patient floors. We were supplied with virtually every hospital security key code and were supplied with a workroom during slower shifts by other nurses or nurse managers so we coulduse the hospital inter code phone system to reach out to everyone on any floor or meet with them face to face. One of the most important aspects of organizing this hospital in it’s entirety was establishing a board of individuals who coordinated the organizing committee which was comprised of members from all eight units of the hospital. The board coordinated actions between groups and continually built unity within the facility. Together, the different units worked as a cohesive team, attacking the hospital.

When the newly formed Health Care Workers Alliance had nearly 70% of the cards signed we hit the hospital management with both barrels. We had received computer data and personnel records on each employee, internal notes and internal minutes from management meetings, which contradicted statements by the CEO and key management personal to employees. We also used the hospitals own words and memos from the previous years to highlight their failure to keep their promises especially from the previous election. This was used to create an atmosphere of outrage and mistrust. We had organizers in scrubs activelyorganizing on the floors. Our organizers were rather crafty. They managed to blend in so well that they also attended management meetings along with other nurses.

We made sure we fit in with the help of nursing and supporting units.We challenged hospital policies on solicitation inside the facility as it was our goal to keep them moving where they would burn up all of their resources putting out our intentional fires, such as openly setting up 6 or 7 tables in the cafeteria with union literature. We knewit would get the attention of management and we sat prepared and at theready to confront management and security. We were there to attack management when they “kept access to information” away from the staff. We turned their “we want to provide you all information during this union election” message into hypocrisy in the eyes of the spectators. Wewere playing games with management and security by staging grand entrances in one area of the hospital so we could enter other areas and make a mockery out of management. The CEO loved to have “town hall meetings” so we had a few hundred nurses walk in on his meetings with signs, chanting that they wanted to be recognized as a bargaining unit which embarrassed the CEO and key management to the point that didn’t want to show their faces in the halls of the hospital anymore. These activities gave the supporters a feeling of power and accomplishment, which allowed them to see cracks in the management team. This also empowered nurses to attack pro-company consultants in management meetings and lead massive walkouts of those meetings and boycott others.We were also able to maintain a large number of nurse managers who supported the union. We were ready to win.

The unions kept the hospital management at bay and had a landslide victory the second time around. This win showed the validity in a commonphrase used by organizers: “We only have to win once!!” Management has to win every time. This victory energized healthcare union elections in California and around the country. This union win led to the onslaught of organizing activity in healthcare that has been so prevalent in recent years.

Shortly after the nurses’ victory, we filed a petition on behalf of the Health Care Workers Alliance. We had over 300 nurses supporting the other groups and working day and night to ensure their victory. Soon thereafter, another two groups (non-professional patient care and support staff) won with 71% voting in favor of the union. Maintenance workers won with 63% voting for the union. When the dust settled we had another 1,500 newly unionized workers. Hospital management never knew what hit them, they never suspected we were organizing their other unitsat the same time they were fighting to keep their nurses union free.

I had a budget of over 1 million dollars for this project and almost three years to successfully complete these elections at Long Beach Memorial Hospital. There is no timeline setting the duration of union infiltrations or effective rules governing union conduct which demonstrates how damaging reducing the election timeline is for management, not only in financial and effective managing terms but also in healing the deep wounds and distrust that make it impossible to retain essential staff and direct positive results for company and service growth.

Note : Here is the link to write your opinion to the NLRB. I encourage you to do so. If management does not protect their rights to remain union free, we will see an expensive increase in organizing activity throughout the country.

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