Showdown at Virginia Mason

The medical center wants to turn all nurses into supervisors—nullifying their union status.

I have this vision that because I own a dog, soon I will be legally prohibited from joining a union.

It's not quite that bad—yet. But a series of decisions expected this summer from the Bush-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could nullify the union memberships of millions of people in the United States and prevent any future unionization attempts by tens of millions more. And one of the most closely watched harbingers in the nation of how these rulings might play out is here in Seattle.

Under 1947's notorious union-busting Taft-Hartley Act, supervisors in the U.S. workforce are considered "management" and therefore have no legal right to unionize. The anticipated NLRB rulings, of three disputes collectively known as the Kentucky River cases, would allow employers in a wide array of industries to reclassify as "supervisors" any employee who has any type of oversight—no matter how inconsequential—over a lower-ranked or less-senior co-worker. Workers who take on apprentices. Lead men in manufacturing crews. Nurses who direct nursing aides.

And, well, I order our dog around. A lot. She seems to like it.

It really is just about that ridiculous. A nurse, for example, has no power to hire or fire, doesn't set schedules, can't mete out discipline. Yet under these rulings, she or he would be considered management. And in anticipation of such a ruling, Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle is quietly hoping to have all 600 of its registered nurses reclassified as supervisors, so as to break the VM nurses union, the Washington State Nurses Association, and win a legal dispute with them.

The case of that dispute arose from a controversial Virginia Mason policy requiring all employees to be inoculated with flu shots each year as a condition of employment (see "Shot for Flu—Or You're Through," Nov. 23, 2005). The WSNA refused on the grounds that it was a condition of work and therefore had to be negotiated; it took the case to the NLRB and won. So Virginia Mason dictated that employees refusing the shots must wear face masks; the WSNA took that, too, to the NLRB, on the same grounds.

That's where, in a mid-June NLRB hearing, Virginia Mason Chief Nursing Officer Charlene Tachivana offered a novel argument against the requirement to negotiate with the union: that all of Virginia Mason's RNs were supervisors, able to hire, fire, and write policy, and therefore not eligible to be in the union at all. "That's ludicrous," says VM nurse Jeaux Rinehart, noting that he and other nurses cannot hire, fire, or write policies. "She's trying to take attention from masks with a much larger issue"—namely, the anticipated Kentucky River rulings.

Virginia Mason isn't the only employer looking to exploit the potential new rules. AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff estimates that the NLRB has already deferred about 120 cases in which union election results have been disputed; employers want to wait for the Kentucky River ruling to see if they can simply declare their workers ineligible to conduct unionization votes at all. In New Jersey, nurses with a common contract at 12 New Jersey hospitals threatened to strike before agreeing to language that guaranteed they wouldn't be reclassified as supervisors.

"You could see health care and hospital strikes across America if the decision is too broad," says Acuff. He estimates 300,000 nurses could be affected by the rulings and up to 1.5 million other workers. "Team leaders and gang leaders in ports, lead men in mines, lead men in docks at manufacturing facilities and warehouses, engineers, people who oversee apprentices in trades—almost every senior worker does this to some extent."

The Bush administration has done this sort of thing before: changing the interpretation of regulations to effect sweeping change without the bother of getting a controversial policy through Congress. It's used such tactics extensively, for example, to eviscerate environmental policies. It's happened in labor law, too. "Whenever they redefine a word, working people get screwed," says David Groves of the Washington State Labor Council, which is also organizing to stop the Virginia Mason reclassification.

Given the NLRB record under Bush, labor leaders are not optimistic that Kentucky River will turn out well. They are particularly exercised that in Kentucky River, as in all the other cases since Bush took office, the NLRB refused to hear oral arguments—the practice in all previous administrations. "To be willing to consider a decision of this magnitude and not even be willing to consider the effect on working people is unconscionable," says Acuff. "This administration has been more antithetical to the rights of workers than any since Herbert Hoover."

The NLRB is expected to rule on the three cases, ironically enough, by Labor Day. Labor leaders, locally and nationally, want the public to ask members of Congress to, at minimum, force the NLRB to actually hold hearings on Kentucky River. During the week of July 10–14,workers are demonstrating in cities across the country — including a rally of some 200 nurses and other union supporters at Virginia Mason on Monday afternoon, July 10.

Given the issue's enormity, it needs to be far more. Ask my dog.

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