SEIU Protests Hospital for Defending Employees' Freedom

It’s one of the most beautiful times of the year in the lovely Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, when the trees are gorgeous hues of crimson and gold, and the sweet smell of hot apple cider is in the brisk autumn air. As you walk in and out of little village colonials and saltbox houses donning fall mums and pumpkins on their porches, you’re hit with that waft of burning fireplace aroma – the sort of scene that gives you that comfy feeling of peace and contentment.

But turn the corner and that picturesque scene is disrupted by a tiny sea of purple t-shirts and angry faces. Yep, you got it – it’s the SEIU! And they’re not in the holiday spirit, apparently.

Pocono Medical Center, a mid-sized, not-for-profit community hospital nestled in the Pocono Mountains near East Stroudsburg University, has been in SEIU’s crosshairs for months. The union has been demanding a closed shop at the hospital, despite the desires of other workers, and has since made it the crux of its contract negotiations. They were out protesting last week, making their demands known. (Not many from Pocono Medical Center participated in the protest, so they resorted to recruiting some nearby friends to join them).

For those not familiar with what a “closed shop” is in union terms, this means that all of those employees would be required to be a member of the union and to pay union dues as a condition of employment.

But Pocono Medical Center isn’t caving in to the SEIU, which represents 560 non-professional service and maintenance workers, such as technicians, administrative workers, hospital cafeteria workers, janitors, and housekeepers at the facility. The hospital, which employs about 1,850 in total, has had a closed shop for its service workers for the last three years, the result of an initial vote that barely squeaked through, according to employee accounts. Three years later, a closed shop just isn’t working for their employees anymore. Some workers at Pocono Medical Center are unhappy with the SEIU and want the ability to opt out if they so choose.

From WBRE:

“We happen to have good managers, good supervisors and we don’t feel we need a union to represent us. That’s what national labor laws are for,” said Sally Schermerhorn, a phlebotomist at Pocono Medical Center.

From the Pocono Record:

“They negotiated the contract and told us they could get certain things, but we didn’t get them — raises and bonuses, better health care — none of that ever happened,” dietary worker Steven VonCrep said. “It’s a matter of free choice, our freedom to choose to belong to the union or not.”

Earlier this year, in June, hospital employees filed a petition on their own accord to de-authorize the union, removing SEIU’s provision that requires employees to pay dues or lose their jobs. This of course prompted intervention from union organizers and even a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, a typical tactic of SEIU to stall a de-certification/de-authorization effort. Union organizers began speaking to workers while other employees were in the cafeteria on their lunch breaks. (Keep in mind, many of the union’s employees at this facility are themselves cafeteria workers). A December 13th hearing is scheduled with an administrative judge in Philadelphia to hear the case.

From the Pocono Record:

In a statement, PMC wrote: “The hospital’s actions with the outside, paid union organizers were only intended to protect our employees from the union representatives, who have complained that they are being harassed during their lunch breaks or when they attempted to report for work or leave for home.”

PMC suggested the complaint was part of a strategy to stop a vote by employees to have an open union shop. That’s where employees aren’t required to join the union or pay dues.

The December hearing is more like a full-blown trial, with documentary evidence and witnesses giving testimony.

“The hospital looks forward to its day in court,” PMC stated. “We are confident that when all witnesses are presented and legal arguments are made, the ALJ (judge) will agree that the hospital has not violated the law in any way.”

Instead of agreeing to a closed shop, the hospital has offered to accommodate an “open shop”, in which employees could make their own choice, and would not be required to pay union dues as a condition of employment. The hospital knows that offering a choice to its employees will not only keep their workforce motivated, it’s the right thing to do. Management has said that they are willing to offer raises and additional benefits, but they’ve insisted that the closed shop must go. An open shop, in their view, is a fair compromise.

In addition to the compromise of an open shop, Pocono Medical Center has also proposed the following terms in a new 3-year contract with the SEIU:

  • free health care at Pocono Medical Center
  • 90 % of workers’ health insurance premiums paid
  • $250 annual credit for those participating in a wellness program
  • 3 % wage increase annually
  • $9.50-per-hour minimum pay rate, to increase to over $10 per hour
  • benefit pension plan fully paid by PMC
  • plus other “current differentials,” which are paid in addition to base pay

The SEIU says that’s nice, but it’s not good enough. They refuse to negotiate without the hospital’s agreement to renew a closed shop.

How does the SEIU justify such demands? Well aside from their usual backwards rhetoric that if you force employees to pay dues, it makes the union stronger and therefore means job security, the SEIU insists that the hospital owes it to the union – because it’s wealthy.

Not so, says Pocono Medical Center. According to the Pocono Record,

The hospital rejected the union’s claim that its financial performance indicated prosperity for the institution.

“For the second year in a row, many hospitals struggled to maintain a positive bottom line due to tough economic conditions felt throughout the nation,” Roche said. “Last year, most hospitals did not give annual increases and even held layoffs and froze vacant positions.”

Pocono Health System earned $17 million in excess revenue over expenses this past fiscal year, ending June 30, 2010, the hospital said.

But as a nonprofit organization, that money must be re-invested into the medical center. The money is used to buy new medical equipment, create information systems and pay off loans for new buildings. That debt stands at $107.5 million.

So far, Pocono Medical Center is holding up against the SEIU propaganda machine, and they are protecting their employees’ wishes to choose whether or not to join the union. The hospital says it will continue to try and negotiate with the SEIU. Until then, it looks as though the area can expect to keep seeing a lot of purple mucking up that beautiful autumn landscape.

By the way, if you’re a union member who is unhappy with the actions of your union, there is plenty that you can do – start by reading this post. Take it from two of us who know. I used to be a closed shop union member of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) for several years and tried desperately to escape the grips of the AFL-CIO member union, until I was rescued by some clever folks. And Peter List, the author of the recommended post and proprietor of LaborUnionReport, has been involved in labor relations for more than 25 years and spent eight years in the labor movement as a kneecap breaker young activist. Thankfully, he’s come over to the light, away from the dark side.


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