Walker workers win round, support in labor dispute

Pro-union employees at Walker Methodist Health Center are claiming victory following a Nov. 24 settlement in which management agreed to rescind an "unlawfully broad" policy banning distribution of union materials on its premises.

Those workers were also buoyed by a recommendation from the United Methodist Church's Concern for Workers Task Force. The task force urged Walker Methodist, 3737 Bryant Ave. S., to stop opposing the efforts by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to organize a union at the Southwest nursing home.

Employees at Walker voted in May to join AFSCME. However, management appealed the vote to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Both sides have skirmished in the regional NLRB offices.

The latest clash resulted in a settlement in which Walker agreed to "rescind our unlawfully broad no-solicitation/no-distribution policy."

Andrew English, an AFSCME spokesperson, said that Walker in effect admitted that it broke labor laws.

"[It's] a de facto admission of guilt," English said. "Walker has claimed… they weren't coercing employees and they weren't violating the social principles [of the Methodist church], but we think that by having to settle with the NLRB, they essentially admit that they were doing both."

Lynn Starkovich, CEO of health center owner Walker Methodist, Inc., said the union is distorting the agreement. "Walker hasn't admitted any guilt," Starkovich said. "Walker entered into a settlement, which by its nature, is not an admission of guilt."

Ronald Sharp, NLRB's Minneapolis branch director, agrees with Starkovich's assessment. "Informal agreements aren't admissible to show culpability or guilt" in court, he said, and are voluntary.

Starkovich said the nonprofit had a policy banning employees from making any solicitations on company property. "That would apply from Girl Scout cookies to Avon to solicitations for a church to the union."

She added, "the policy, as drafted, was overbroad, and we knew that from the day the union walked in. Our option was to either settle in good faith or go to full-blown hearing. . . [that] probably would have cost $50,000."

English said management has been trying to stop workers from organizing by illegally prohibiting circulation of pro-union flyers, buttons and brochures.

"Workers have a right to distribute union materials in nonworking areas at

nonworking times," he said. "If you start saying you can't distribute any union information on the entire premises, that's a violation of union labor law -- which is what they were trying to do."

The most important issue between Walker and its pro-union employees remains unsettled: whether licensed practical nurses should be considered supervisors. If so, as the Walker contends, LPNs can't participate in union activities. Union supporters, many of whom are LPNs, disagree and say management is illegally blocking them from organizing.

Both sides say they see little hope of a settlement, meaning the NLRB will have to decide.

The United Methodist Church has an extensive record of strong pro-worker stands in labor disputes but has no control over Walker Methodist despite the longstanding relationship between the church and the healthcare facility. The church's Workers Task Force said Walker's appeals to the NLRB might be "nothing more than delay tactics, which have been used in other situations to deny workers their rights. While these activities are legal, they are clearly not in keeping with our social teachings."

Starkovich told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that she doesn't "think the [church task force] has treated us fairly."

In a previous Southwest Journal interview, Starkovich said the church "doesn't tell us what to do, and we don't tell them what to do."

She said the LPN issue has national implications; healthcare facilities around the country might be forced to hire more expensive registered nurses if LPNs are declared by the NLRB to be supervisors.

Said the NLRB's Sharp, "It's been a hard issue for the agency but really has to get resolved because there [are] a lot of registered nurses and LPNs who should know whether they have the right to engage in union activity or not."

He said he doesn't expect a quick decision because the five-member NLRB board has a vacancy and is currently split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. He said that it'd be difficult for President Bush to add a Republican to the board in an election year. Sharp said national politics might delay the outcome of the Walker labor dispute.

"I think it's going to be a long while," he said.