SEIU shocked by decert epidemic

Leaders of a movement that has tentatively ousted the Service Employees International Union from a nursing home downtown say the union was unresponsive and unavailable too often. "[SEIU] didn't do anything for us except collect union dues," said Mary Foor, cook supervisor at the Altoona (PA) Center for Nursing Care.

Foor and others presented owner Grane Healthcare with a petition signed by 70 of the 120 bargaining-unit workers, renouncing SEIU representation at the expiration of its contract, they said. The company immediately withdrew its recognition of the union, which has appealed to the National Labor Relations Board in hopes an investigation will show the petition doesn’t represent a majority.

It was hard for workers to get an answer on almost any question they asked the union, including what it was doing with money from fundraisers, cook supervisor Debbie Hartman, housekeeper Woody Patterson and Foor said.

"No one ever gets back to anybody," Patterson said.

The union questions most of the activists' claims. It's hard to say how many workers wanted to keep the union because "since the employer action, employees are scared to speak out," said Kevin Hefty, vice president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.

Recently resigned laundry aide Gail Lightner — who was union vice president — guessed about 50 employees support the union.

The union also suspects illegal company involvement, based on seemingly coordinated if unsuccessful de-unionization movements against SEIU at Grane's four other western Pennsylvania facilities and the nearly immediate changes Grane made after receiving the petition, Hefty said.

Foor said workers acted on their own.

A former union official who didn't want her name used said the union did plenty for the workers. The union got a retirement plan for her fellow workers, good raises, every other weekend off and Easter designated as a holiday, while helping to reinstate fired and suspended workers and helping others get unemployment, she said.

But workers often didn't show up for meetings, failed to read their contract, didn't take the initiative to call a pension hot line and didn’t use the proper chain of command, she said.

The union got annual raises of 5 percent for nurses and 4 percent or more for other workers in the last contract, Hefty said.

The union also got Grane to contribute more each year for health insurance and to contribute toward a defined-benefit pension plan, he said.

The workers should have been more careful about what they asked for because managers now "can do what they want when there’s no union," the official said.

Lightner said she already has felt the effect.

She resigned when the company moved her from first to third shift after dropping recognition of the union.

She can't work third shift because she needs to care for her father, which the company knew about, she said.

"If the union had been in there, they couldn’t have thrown me on the other shift," she said. "They’ve been trying to get rid of me for years."

When presented with a decertification petition that seems to represent a majority of workers, a company can withdraw recognition of the union or file a petition for a decertification vote supervised by the Labor Relations Board, said Mike Joyce, assistant to the regional director in the board’s Pittsburgh office.

Workers can force a decertification vote with a petition representing 30 percent of the work force.

They forced such a vote in 2004 and narrowly lost.

Foor and Patterson said they are not generally anti-union.

Foor was shop steward after center workers unionized 10 years ago and worked happily for 17 years at Hillview Nursing Home as a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, she said.

Patterson was a satisfied member of the United Steelworkers Union at Proctor Silex in Pinecroft and at a clothing company in Tipton, he said.

Despite decertification, nonunionists are not making enemies of those who disagreed with them, Foor and Hartman said.

"It's not a personal thing," Hartman said.

Nobody has bothered her about her stance in favor of the union, the official said.

The former union official did not see any of the petitioners in action because they avoided her, but based on what she heard, she believes Grane permitted them to circulate on company time, in contrast to its prohibition against pro-union activity on company time, she said.

She also heard that petitioners told workers who have overused call-off privileges they would make out better if the union was out.


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