At Walker Methodist, immigrant workers seeking more respect battle management who say the fight could cause a nationwide cost crisis
One of Minnesota's biggest union struggles is taking place at the state's second-largest nursing home, Southwest's Walker Methodist Health Center.
A significant number of African and Latin American immigrants staff the 488-bed facility, and claim they need a union for respect and fair treatment in the workplace. Walker Methodist's CEO said the nonprofit will accept a union, but rejected a 165-105 pro-union vote in May and asked the National Labor Relations Board to overturn it.
Management said the local union fight could set national precedents, raising nursing home costs or changing staffing patterns nationwide.
Employees attempting to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) say their effort isn't about money. However, a union representative said, "Of course we want more money. We always want more money."
Management responds that because the State Legislature effectively froze nursing home revenues this year, there's no more money for employees -- especially when other costs, such as employee heath insurance and utilities, are still rising.
The war of words is unlikely to be settled soon. Both sides have hunkered down, awaiting a decision from Washington, D.C., that could take months.
The mercies of management Over 550 people staff the seven-story facility at 3737 Bryant Ave. S. According to AFSCME, the union drive at Walker involves more workers than any other in the state this year.
Tony Ogundiran, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) at the facility for eight years, began organizing for a union in February. "I started noticing the way our employees were being treated, and a lot of people were just getting frustrated with what's going on," he said. "People [were] quitting or reducing their hours.
"We are not out to break management's purse. We are not all about finances and wage increases. We just want some respect and dignity and the opportunity to be heard," he said.
Ogundiran, a Nigeria native, began talking to co-workers to see if they would band together to fight what he and others say are Walker management's unfair and arbitrary policies. Ogundiran said of his peers, "They feel disrespected, disregarded; just, simply put, like peons."
Workers cite a wage freeze, eliminating matching 401k contributions and ending the "high-low" salary system that allows employees to opt out of some benefits for $2 an hour more in pay. Currently, nurses aides make $10.08-$12.87 an hour, and LPNs make from $14.98 to $19 an hour.
"We're all at the mercies of the management," Ogundiran said.
Lynn Starkovich, CEO of health center owner Walker Methodist, Inc., said, "I know that the freeze in wages and some of the changes in the 401k helped prompt [the attempt to organize a union].
"If the employees truly want a union, that's fine, we'll work with the union. The problem with what happened here is a little more complex."
Tom Burke, a business representative at AFSCME Council 14, said, "She is lying if she says she would accept it [the union]. No. There was a vote. They're refusing to accept the vote."
Roles in dispute Starkovich said the main reason Walker Methodist won't accept the vote revolves around LPNs at the facility. Management insists the LPNs are supervisors prohibited by law from joining a union. Starkovich said because LPNs participated in its organizing, the pro-union vote is invalid even though it didn't include LPNs.
Walker Methodist employees and organizers at AFSCME, couldn't agree less.
Said AFSCME's Burke, "The issue of the LPN supervisor business was an issue that was the subject of an eight-day hearing that [the management of Walker Methodist] dragged out at the [regional arm of the] National Labor Relations Board. And the Board ruled that they [LPNs] weren't supervisors. Walker is unwilling to accept the fact."
Starkovich counters with Walker Methodist's job description for LPNs. It states, in part, that LPNs are "responsible for the direct care, supervision and evaluation of services provided to a block of residents."
It also states that LPNs are to "manage/supervise assigned [nursing aides]" and are "responsible for coaching, counseling and disciplining" the aides.
Christine Lippert, an LPN who helped organize the union effort, said, "Our job description pretty much has changed since we tried to get the union in…We were never able to hire or fire people. Any kind of discipline was always taken by the RN [registered nurse] on the floor, not the LPN."
Starkovich said the NLRB's ruling on LPNs as supervisors has broad ramifications as "a national issue."
She said nursing homes nationwide could face economic crises if LPNs are deemed supervisors because nursing care facilities would be forced to hire expensive RNs to replace the less costly LPNs.
"If our LPNs are not supervisors, we need to revisit our whole staffing pattern," she said. "If they're not supervisors, we have to hire supervisors, which means we don't need all of them, potentially…That's not in any way intended to be a threat."
Money Many people assume that money is the root of all problems with unions, and Starkovich appears to be no exception. "The union was promising them, you know, higher wages, more benefits," she said. "It's pretty much economic. And there is no more money."
She said that this year's State Legislature effectively "froze nursing home rates" when it capped Medical Assistance allotments. By state law, nursing homes can't charge anyone higher prices than those paid by Medical Assistance. Therefore, when rates are frozen, so are nursing home revenues -- and the funds available to pay employees.
Starkovich noted that while Walker Methodist's revenues are frozen, its costs are not. She said facility food costs are up 8 percent in the past year, liability insurance rose 5 percent, employee medical insurance increased 21 percent, and utility costs have risen between 9 and 16 percent.
Starkovich said that when she was hired early this year as CEO, one of her primary tasks was to cut Walker Methodist's costs. The facility will lose $2 million this year.
"We understand the economics of the situation," AFSCME's Burke said. "I don't believe they don't have any money, by the way. That's an issue for negotiation. And quite honestly, it's an issue for lobbying at the Legislature. What the Legislature did to the nursing homes across the state is inexcusable. They basically told the nursing homes, 'Eat all your increased costs for the next two years.'"
Burke insists that AFSCME and Walker Methodist can, together, lobby the Legislature for higher nursing home payments.
More money Burke said that Walker Methodist management and employees could be partners of a sort if management would recognize the union.
"One of the things people get when you have a union is the ability to participate in decision-making. Really, it's the only thing you're guaranteed," he said. "You're not guaranteed a raise or anything in particular."
"I'm not in this for the pay increase," Lippert, a union organizer, said. "I don't expect a raise, and I don't expect any difference in benefits. I just want equal rights; fairness for everybody."
Burke laughed when told that some employee union organizers say they aren't looking for an increase in pay.
"Don't quote anything that we're not looking for more money," he said. "No, of course we're looking for more money. We're always looking for more money, but we deal in the real world at the same time.
"It's an issue of power and control. People there feel they're not treated right. Now, does that mean that economics are not an issue? No, of course not. Everybody wants more money."
Other issues Walker Methodist workers say one of the biggest issues is unequal treatment. Workers say some employees are given favorable treatment when they ask for a day off, while others are denied time off when they want it or are punished for asking for it.
"I've seen a lot of it with the African employees," Tracy Plante, a Walker LPN, said. "They'll go and request a day off and the way they're told no, they can just be screamed at. And [the employees] don't do anything about it. They don't report this to anybody. You know, they feel, 'What can we do? We need this job because we have to support ourselves.' A lot of them have families back in Africa that they're sending money back supporting."
She said she knows certain employees are treated better than that -- because she used to be one of them.
"Management liked me," she said. "They would do special favors for me. I'd say, 'You know what, I don't feel like working today. Let me trade it for another day' and they would do that for me. That's no longer what they do for me, but they used to."
She said supervisors have harassed her since they discovered her union involvement.
"If you speak out, you are absolutely named, numbered and they'll start a paper trail on you. They'll start targeting you for nonsense reasons. That's psychologically very damaging to people," she said. "It's best for employees at Walker to not speak out in order to just keep their jobs. We have lost so many people since this started."
Starkovich said that employees have a grievance procedure they can pursue all the way up to her desk if they're harassed by anyone. So far, she says, no one has filed a complaint regarding harassment about union activity.
Plante said she has filed a grievance with the NLRB over the harassment.
On the road to nowhere Both sides say there's little to do now but wait for the NLRB to make its decision on Walker Methodist's pro-union-vote appeal.
Oddsmakers might give the edge to Walker because the NLRB is made up of five members, three of whom can be from the president's party.
"That's why they're appealing to Washington," Burke said. "They know that the Board is now under the control of George Bush. He's appointing antiunion people to the board. That's what Starkovich is counting on. She's asking George Bush to come to her rescue."
Said Starkovich, "My dream is that the union would just go away and we could start working with our staff. Right now, there's a wall up."
It's a wall both sides agree will be up for some time to come.