Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
United Health Care Local 22 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union lacks a single fulltime employee and it’s quartered modestly in an old office building at Markham and University, just across the street from St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center. Still, “We’re a big deal in the labor world,” says Paige Yates, president of the local, and chief steward Cheryle Coleman agrees: “We are watched closely. We get calls all the time asking how we did it.”
Yates and Coleman are registered nurses. They and their colleagues at St. Vincent have been a big deal in the labor world since 2000, when they established the only nursing union in a private hospital in the South. Management contested the issue sharply, of course. Just last month, the pro-union nurses successfully defended their local against dissenting nurses in a decertification election. The vote was 334 to 224 to keep the union. About one-third of the 800-plus nurses in the St. Vincent system didn’t vote.
It was an impressive victory, even more so if one had heard certain rumors beforehand, rumors that the OPEIU was ready to give in and wouldn’t mount a stout defense of the local. The theory was that the union couldn’t collect enough dues in a “right to work” state such as Arkansas to make the local worthwhile. “Right to work” laws, which are found all over the South, provide that workers can’t be required to join or pay dues to a union, even though the union must give them the same representation that it gives dues-paying members. (On the morning that Yates and Coleman were interviewed, they’d first accompanied a non-paying nurse to a grievance proceeding.) About 180 of the St. Vincent nurses pay union dues, according to Yates. If not for “right to work,” the union could collect dues from all the nurses, and, Yates said, life would be easier for the union.
The local didn’t take the decertification vote for granted, Yates said. Both sides worked hard, and neither was confident of success, she said.
“We went to break rooms, we did mailings, we tried especially to talk with the new nurses who don’t know what it’s all about,” Yates said. “We did the kind of things we do all the time, but we kicked it up a notch.” And they did it between their regular nursing shifts. “I missed a lot of kids’ ballgames,” Yates said.
What has the union done for the nurses? “If a nurse has a grievance now, there’s a representative that will go in with them,” Yates said. “The pay structure used to be on a merit basis, now it’s equal for everybody. If one person gets a raise, everybody gets one. And RNs are the only ones paid this way. The other St. Vincent employees still have a merit structure.”
Because of the union contract, “Management can’t come in and change my vacation days or my sick days on a whim,” Coleman said, and what the union negotiates for RNs on matters like this tends to trickle down to other employees — LPNs and housekeeping staff. Management cannot fire a nurse at will, as was the case before the union contract, Coleman said. “We’ve represented eight people who lost their jobs and got them back, or could have if they’d wanted.”
It may be significant that Yates and Coleman didn’t list higher pay as being among the union’s accomplishments. “We just want raises to be fair,” Yates said. “The reason the union is here is because Cheryle and others saw that the hospital was not treating nurses equally. Some were getting things that others weren’t. We wanted to be treated as a family.”
Management talks about merit pay, Yates said, but the union believes that merit pay isn’t always given on merit. The “personal feelings” of managers can enter the process, she said. Coleman said she was once the only woman in a unit, did the same things the men did except play golf with the manager, and was the only member of the unit who didn’t receive the highest possible evaluation from the manager.
St. Vincent’s president and chief executive officer, Peter Banko, has been on the job only a couple of months. He told a reporter after the decertification election that he was disappointed, adding: “With a tremendous nursing shortage, there’s opportunities to do some creative things with compensation and staffing and other things. It just makes it a little tougher when you have to deal with a third party.”
Yates and Coleman don’t know what to make of Banko yet. But Coleman didn’t like his reference to a “third party.”
“We’re not a third party,” she said. “We’re part of the hospital.”
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