EAST HARRIET – A long, controversial battle for a workers’ union at Walker Methodist Health Center ended this spring when the Washington, D.C.-based National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified a bargaining unit for the nursing home’s roughly 600 employees.
The new union, recognized by Walker management in May, is part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 5. Its members include nursing assistants, housekeepers, maintenance staff, launderers and dietary workers who voted 165-105 to unionize in May of 2003 and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) that voted 35-6 to join a month later. The LPN ballots weren’t counted until early May this year because of a drawn-out NLRB decision process complicated by appeals from Walker management.
After a challenge from management argued that LPNs could not vote to unionize because they were supervisory staff, certification of Walkers’ union became contingent on the NLRB’s decision on three similar “lead” cases, said Patricia Gilbert, associate director of the NLRB’s division of information. A short-staffed board delayed the decision, she said.
In the end, the NLRB rejected management’s initial appeal and another one citing lack of confidence in the four-year-old votes because of attrition. Both union supporters and management said they were glad to have the decision made.
“All of us would have liked to have this resolved a lot sooner,” said Walker CEO Lynn Starkovich.
Starkovich said she’s not sure the union will be beneficial for employees, but she’s willing to work with it and has already started talks with representatives. Union supporters hope the union brings more respect for employees and improved working conditions.
Employees also now have the power to bargain for better wages and benefits, but union leaders said that’s not the goal.
“In the workplace, it’s more than dollars and cents,” said Eliot
Seide, director of AFSCME Council 5. “It’s respect, dignity and better patient care. It’s big issues.”
Jesse Steen, a Walker nursing assistant who has hosted union meetings at his home, said employees haven’t been treated with respect and he didn’t think their concerns were being recognized. “Distrust and fear” made up the work environment he described.
“Finally people are starting to step out of the shadows,” Steen said. “But this whole legacy of fear is still prevalent.”
Steen hopes the union will improve the worker-management relationship, bring updated medical equipment to the center, and possibly open the door for an improved retirement package and increased wages. He also hopes it reduces staff turnover.
So does Rosalyn Byers, an LPN who said she has felt little job security at Walker. She said she’s used to new faces in her department.
“I’m hoping for a more pleasant work environment and more long-term employees,” she said.
Steen said unjustified firings were common at Walker during the past several years, especially among union supporters.
Starkovich, a former labor attorney who joined Walker just as the union was forming four years ago, said she did not take the job to bust the union. She called Steen’s comments “union rhetoric” and said administration only terminates “for cause.”
Walker administrator John Huhn said management has a great relationship with employees. Many workers agree and are against the new union.
Gary Bellmore, a therapeutic recreation assistant who has worked at Walker in various positions for the past 21 years, is among them. He said he has enjoyed his years at Walker and doesn’t think there’s a problem with the working conditions or anything else at the center.
“Walker is being made out to be a real goat and it’s not,” he said.
Other employees are concerned they won’t be able to afford union dues, which have not been set yet. Some weren’t at Walker four years ago and don’t want to be part of a union they didn’t have a chance to vote for.
“We weren’t even here to vote the union in,” said Walker housekeeper Diane Shults. “They don’t know what everyone wants.”
The new union will eventually have its own AFSCME local designation. A date for the first round of labor negotiations has not been set.
Walker Methodist, at 3737 Bryant Ave. S., is the largest nursing home in the state, offering care to nearly 500 residents.
Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]