HCA hospitals in Texas and Florida are seeing the formations of new unions at a fast clip this year, including two last week, following the signing of an agreement that gave labor unions easy access to workers.
HCA agreement gives way to more unions
Last spring, the investor-owned hospital company quietly signed a pact with two of the fastest-growing unions in healthcare, the Service Employees International Union and National Nurses United, HCA and union officials said.
As a result, new unions of nurses, technicians and service workers have sprung up this year in at least nine HCA hospitals in Florida, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada and Texas, with five more elections expected in Florida by next year. Two Florida HCA hospitals unionized just last week.
In exchange for receiving unfettered access to employees at the 20 HCA hospitals, the unions agreed not to target workers at HCA's other 142 hospitals for several years, according to people who claimed knowledge of the secret agreement, including Ed Bruno, the southern regional director for the NNU's National Nurses Organizing Committee.
“People are saying, ‘Texas? Florida? Are you kidding me?'” Bruno said of successful organizing efforts in traditionally union-hostile southern states. “Certainly in nursing work … you've got years and years of pent-up frustration that is looking for an outlet.”
The neutrality agreement gives union organizers access to employees while prohibiting hospital management from campaigning against the union. Elections covered under the agreement take place by secret balloting supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. So far, all but one proposed bargaining unit has been approved, moving about 6,000 NNU-affiliated registered nurses and 4,500 other SEIU hospital workers into new unions at HCA hospitals in 2010.
HCA officials confirmed the existence of the agreement but did not elaborate on the specifics contained in it.
“While we do not believe having a union is in the best interests of our hospitals, we respect out employees' rights to make this decision,” HCA spokesman Ed Fishbough said in a written statement.
The HCA pact appears to have led to more new unions than guidelines published last year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that were designed to encourage not-for-profit Catholic systems to make union organizing smoother though cooperation agreements. (June 22, 2009, p. 12)
Experts say the new organizing at HCA hospitals has in some markets caused a corresponding backlash in anti-union activity at competing hospitals.
That's partly because the common industry practice of employing part-time nurses and other workers often leads to hospitals hiring people who work jobs at multiple competing hospitals in the same market. Now, in some cases, these dually employed nurses belong to unions in one workplace.
“Senior HR vice presidents are very concerned,” said Jim Trivisonno, president of IRI Consultants, a management-consulting firm in Detroit.
Though it might seem counterintuitive that for-profit chains are more receptive to union activity than community-based not-for-profit, observers say HCA officials must believe they can benefit financially from the deals—as officials at Tenet Healthcare Corp. believed when they signed a similar pact with SEIU in 2003.
HCA officials appear to be seeking labor peace and cost stability by locking in worker wages at certain hospitals and securing agreements to prevent unionization at others. This year's enhanced union activity comes as system executives plan for their upcoming initial public offering of an estimated $4.6 billion in stock.
Tom Servodidio, who chairs the labor law practice group for law firm Duane Morris, said such agreements also can appear attractive to employers because they can help establish a “pattern agreement” for labor contracts while avoiding spending large sums on anti-union activities.
Officials with Caritas Christi Health Care System in Boston cited labor-cost stability when asked why the not-for-profit system signed a five-year union contract just one week before the system was bought by for-profit Cerberus Capital Management (Nov. 1, 2010 , p. 13).
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