Hospitals aren't the only providers locking horns with unions these days.
Nursing homes have become a key battleground for organized labor as union and long-term-care officials clash over the right to represent the lion's share of the estimated 2 million workers employed by U.S. nursing homes.
To date, unions and their lobbying groups have made gradual progress organizing nursing homes throughout the United States.
The Service Employees International Union, for example, represents nearly 100,000 workers in 900 of the nation's 17,000 nursing homes. That's roughly 5% of the U.S. nursing home industry.
While as many as 50% of nursing homes in such states as California, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania are unionized, several other states-among them Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah-have little or no union representation.
As a result, the SEIU has proclaimed 1995 as the year of the nursing home worker and has organized a national marketing campaign aimed at adding thousands of new nursing home employees to the union's ranks. Its primary target is for-profit nursing home chains.
"Our biggest problem is that the multifacility nursing home companies are fairly unanimous in their desire to keep unions out," said Dave Snapp, nursing home organizing project director of the Washington-based SEIU.
"For-profit chains are much more conscious of keeping staffing levels down," he said. "That's why we feel it's important to organize them first because they're the ones setting the tone for the industry."
Not surprisingly, for-profit providers strongly disagree. Most defend their pay scales, staffing ratios and overall quality of care, and insist that unions oftentimes are more interested in serving themselves than rank and file healthcare workers.
For example, Beverly Enterprises, the nation's largest nursing home chain, has been a primary target of unions over the past few years.
On May 18 Beverly shareholders passed an amended shareholders' rights plan that would give Beverly's board of directors greater power to oppose a takeover effort.
"The AFL-CIO unions involved have a dismal record of organizing the nursing home industry, and they are trying to achieve through this smear and harassment campaign what they have not been able to achieve through traditional labor practices," said John W. MacKenzie, Beverly's chief corporate counsel.
Earlier this month Food & Allied Service Trades, a Washington-based group representing unions, filed a lawsuit against Beverly in an attempt to block the company from amending its shareholders' rights plan. FAST owns about 45 shares of Beverly's 85 million shares outstanding.
"We've been having to contend with FAST for at least 13 years," MacKenzie said. "Beverly's size and number of employees are attractive to the unions. It's an ongoing struggle."
Last June Beverly shareholders voted down a FAST-backed proposal that would have required company executives to provide details of all Beverly's pending and settled lawsuits involving patient care at its nursing facilities.
Beverly executives opposed the move because they viewed it as part of a thinly veiled campaign by FAST to unionize its nursing facilities.
"What the unions are doing-and we're one of the few corporations the unions have targeted-is to continue to exert a great deal of pressure on management because they figure it's easier to have management give in (to their demands)," Robert Pommerville, Beverly's senior vice president and general counsel, said last year.
In 1994 Beverly and the SEIU were involved in a legal donnybrook after the National Labor Relations Board ordered Beverly not to harass any of its employees engaged in union organizing. The NLRB ruling upheld an administrative law judge's decision that found Beverly guilty of nearly 100 labor law violations involving 33 Beverly-owned nursing homes.
However, in March 1994, a federal appeals court struck down the NLRB order.
"Beverly is, to be sure, opposed to the unionization of its employees, but it has the right to take that position," Judge Ralph Winter Jr. wrote in the court's decision. "The order in question thus must be justified, if at all, by the nature of Beverly's past conduct."
But Beverly is just one of several nursing home chains targeted by union-organizing campaigns.
On May 18, the SEIU, the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform and the California Nurses
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