Hungering for KY nurses' union dues

Thirteen years after losing a bitter election to unionize what is now Norton Audubon Hospital, the Nurses Professional Organization soon may get another try. The union lost that election handily, but the National Labor Relations Board voided the result because it said hospital managers coerced nurses to vote no.

Now, the labor board plans to hold a new election at the Louisville hospital on Poplar Level Road - and Norton Healthcare says it welcomes the vote. "Are we optimistic that we would win? Sure," said Tom Kmetz, president of the hospital. "I wouldn't say 'bring it on' -- I'm not that confident. But I'm pretty confident that we would be successful" in turning back the union effort.

The upcoming vote will determine whether Audubon will become the only major Louisville hospital, other than the VA Medical Center, to have union nurses.

Norton cleared the way for the new election by agreeing last month to settle an unfair labor-practices case involving its treatment of three pro-union nurses. Norton agreed to pay them about $172,000. The case had been a roadblock because the NLRB won't hold elections while unfair labor claims are pending at a workplace.

Norton told employees last week that it expects an election within a few months.

Kay Tillow, director of organization for the nurses group, said the union doesn't want a vote right away because it needs time to "reach out to (nurses) and to build our union," given the passage of 13 years since the last election at Audubon.

However, the NLRB wants to get the case resolved, and its regional director might not allow a delay, said Matthew Denholm, supervisory examiner at the Labor Relations Board's regional office in Cincinnati.

Norton officials maintain that Audubon is a much better place to work than in 1994, when Columbia/HCA Healthcare operated it.

They point out that the hospital has 41 percent more registered nurses now than under Columbia, though that occurred partly from replacing licensed practical nurses with more highly trained registered nurses. The company also said it has spent $65 million to upgrade Audubon's equipment and technology since 1998.

But Tillow said conditions at Audubon still are ripe for a union. She said nurses need higher wages, more respect, and protection from being assigned temporarily to units they're not familiar with.

She and former nurse organization members at Audubon said nurses need more of a voice in patient-care decisions and have too high a workload because there are too few nurses.

"You couldn't spend the time that you needed to with each patient," said retired nurse Patty Clark, a former president of the union, who will get a small portion of the pending settlement. She said nurses also have been fired for making mistakes caused by overwork.

An affiliated nurses' union in California won a law requiring minimum nurse-to-patient ratios in that state in 1999. Tillow said she believes the ratios at Audubon are often lower than the California requirements, although she couldn't provide figures.

Audubon chief nursing officer Jane Carmody said the hospital's staffing levels generally equal or exceed the California requirements, which vary for different areas such as intensive-care units and emergency rooms.
Uphill battle likely

To win an election at Audubon, the nurses' organization would have to win over nurses who arrived long after the late 1980s, when the hospital became a center of efforts to unionize Louisville nurses.

"I don't think I would vote for a union," said Genny Clifford, an intensive-care nurse who has been at Audubon five years.

She said Audubon has set up committees for nurses to share in decisions such as how to manage certain illnesses. "It makes me feel like I have a say in what I do," Clifford said.

"I just don't want to have anything to do with (a union) at all," said Ashley Ricketts, an emergency-room nurse. "You're putting yourself under somebody else's rule. And I don't like that. I like the way we're doing things now."

Few hospital nurses in the United States are in a union, but the practice is particularly uncommon in Kentucky, according to figures compiled by a national nurses' union.

About 18 percent of registered nurses nationwide are in a union, according to United American Nurses. The figure is about 11 percent in Kentucky, the organization said.

Nurses are unionized at the Louisville VA Medical Center - where civil service rules limit union powers - and Appalachian Regional Healthcare, which operates nine hospitals in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.

Nurses in the Appalachian system, represented by the Kentucky Nurses Association, have been on strike since Oct. 1. Tillow and a group of NPO nurses from Audubon went to Hazard one day late last month to support them on the picket line. But Tillow stressed that that doesn't mean the NPO would consider a strike at Audubon if it won representation there.

The inherited lawsuit

The case Norton is settling for $172,000 involves a nurse who was fired by Columbia/HCA in 1994 and two nurses, including Clark, who were demoted from charge nurse to staff nurse in 1996. The NLRB found the nurses were punished for pro-union activity.

Norton inherited an obligation to give the nurses appropriate jobs after it bought Audubon, but hasn't done so, the NLRB has ruled.

Norton offered the two former charge nurses comparable positions, but defined the posts as supervisory -- meaning the two nurses could not take part in a union. The NLRB said that was wrong.

The nurse that Columbia fired, Joanne Sandusky, had been a lactation specialist at Audubon. Norton eventually offered her a position as a medical-surgical nurse, but not an infant-care job she was trained for. That offer was not "valid," the NLRB found.

Sandusky, 67, became a public-health nurse after Columbia fired her. She lost the most income and therefore got the bulk of Norton's settlement money. She said her amount was about $139,000.

Sandusky is retired, so she won't be involved in the Audubon election. But she said she hopes the union wins.

"It's been a long fight," she said, "but I really think it's worth it."


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