Effort Being Made to Decertify Nurses Union at Southern Ocean Medical Center

About 300 Nurses Have Been Working Without a Contract for Two Months
Oct 03, 2018

The Major League Baseball playoffs began this week, but hardball isn’t being played only in ballparks this fall. A slugfest of Yankees-Red Sox proportions is developing at Southern Ocean Medical Center in Manahawkin.

The Health Professionals and Allied Employees union, which represents approximately 300 SOMC nurses who have been working without a contract since the beginning of August, announced last Friday that it had received a notice from the National Labor Relations Board stating that a petition had been filed by a nurse to hold a decertification election at the Manahawkin hospital.

The objective of a decertification election is to terminate the union’s right to represent the petitioner and fellow employees. Once a union is decertified, workers no longer have to join the union or pay dues to it and can negotiate their own individual contracts with an employer.

The HPAE statement may have been somewhat misleading. True, one nurse could have drafted the petition, but in order to be filed with the NLRB, at least 30 percent of the bargaining unit employees, in this case SOMC nurses, must have signed it. The NLRB’s next step is to verify the signatures. If the signatures of at least 30 percent of the bargaining unit’s employees are determined to be valid, the NLRB would set a date for the decertification election, usually about 60 days later. If 50 percent or more of the employees vote against union representation, the union would be decertified.

The balloting is secret, so neither the union nor the hospital administration would know how each individual nurse voted.

If the 30 percent bar has been hurdled, that means the decertification movement has considerable support. On the other hand, if 50 percent or more of the workers had signed the petition, it could have been delivered directly to Hackensack Meridian Health without involving the NLRB, so the issue apparently is still up for debate.

Decertification petitions are not unusual. According to the NLRB, at least 313 such petitions have been filed in the U.S. every year since Fiscal Year 2008, with a high of 602 that year. In Fiscal Year 2017 (the U.S. government’s fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30; for example, Fiscal Year 2018 ended on Sunday), 328 decertification petitions were filed.

The filing of a decertification petition doesn’t necessarily mean an election would take place. In FY17, 27 petitions were dismissed by the NLRB for lack of valid signatures or other reasons while 125 were withdrawn, perhaps because a contract had been signed after the petition was filed.

But if a decertification election were to take place at SOMC, the odds aren’t in the union’s favor. In FY17 there were 168 decertification elections. Unions won 59 of them but lost 118. Since FY08, there hasn’t been a single year in which unions won the majority of decertification elections.

HPAE immediately accused Hackensack Meridian Health, SOMC’s parent company, of “illegally orchestrating a union decertification effort using aggressive anti-union tactics that will ultimately fail.”

“The vast majority of nurses have been focused on doing their jobs well and gaining improved patient safety measures at the bargaining table,” said Barbara Bosch, a SOMC nurse and president of HPAE Local 5138 at the hospital. “Corporate executives are focused in intimidating and bullying nurses to silence us.”

Bosch claimed Hackensack Meridian Health has distributed literature and held meetings that were used to explain how nurses can leave the union while also spreading misinformation about HPAE leaders. Similar attempts, she said, were made at other Hackensack Meridian facilities, but she called the actions at SOMC “particularly aggressive.”

“Hackensack Meridian is orchestrating this decertification effort by using egregious and illegal tactics to bust our union,” said HPAE President Ann Twomey. “We believe this was initiated by the hospital, not the nurse who joined the corporation’s scheme. We have the support of the vast majority of our nurse members and the public because we speak for patients and what they need to receive safe care.”

HPAE also represents approximately 900 nurses and health care professionals at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen and 1,100 nurses at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, two other Hackensack Meridian Health facilities, where nurses have been working without a contract since July.

The battle between HPAE and Hackensack Meridian Health is a clash of giants. The former is the largest union of registered nurses and health care professionals in New Jersey, representing some 13,000 nurses, social workers, therapists, technicians, medical researchers and other healthcare professionals in hospitals, nursing homes, home care agencies, blood banks and university research facilities in the Garden State and southeastern Pennsylvania. The latter, with 16 hospitals, 4,520 beds, approximately 33,000 employees and some 6,500 staff physicians as well as over 200 ambulatory centers, fitness centers and skilled nursing facilities, is neck and neck in the race with RWJBarnabas Health to become New Jersey’s largest healthcare system. Hackensack Meridian Health reported annual profits of $338 million in 2016 and projected its 2018 revenues at $5.5 billion.

The union, while obviously fighting for pay raises for its members, maintains that its largest concern is patient safety, saying hospital nurses often suffer from heavy workloads that threaten the public. Hospital staffing regulations in New Jersey have not been updated since 1987.

“Technology, reduced hospital stays and patient care have undergone drastic changes, but staffing regulations have remained stagnant, unchanged, and un-enforced,” reads a union flier. “While our state chooses to do little to improve staffing levels, HPAE local unions have fought for, and won, nurse-to-patient staffing ratios and limits on floating and flexing in collective bargaining contracts. Past HPAE victories and research studies demonstrate that safe staffing levels are linked to better patient outcomes and improved working conditions. New Jersey’s hospitals can and must do more.”

Twomey said the union may ask the NLRB to block an election because “HMH’s unfair labor practices and unlawful facilitation of the decertification effort have made employee free choice impossible.”

Of course, the union would have to substantiate its charges. One thing is certain – it is clearly against the law for a company to assist a decertification effort. Two anti-union organizations warn workers who want to decertify their unions to avoid partnering with companies.

“It is important to remember that your company cannot help or assist you with decertifying a union,” says the Labor Relations Institute Inc. “You can reach out to other organizations to help. Fell free to contact us … for a referral.”

“These (petition) signatures should be collected when employees are on non-work time, and in non-work areas,” advises the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. “You must fill in the names of the union and the employer in the blank spaces above the signature lines before you collect signatures. There should be no employer help, and employer resources should not be used.”

Hackensack Meridian Health responded with a prepared statement: “Registered nurses at Southern Ocean Medical Center (SOMC) filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) seeking a vote to decertify the Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE) as their bargaining representative. This action comes while we continue to negotiate in good faith with the union to settle a labor contract for SOMC nurses.

“All SOMC nurses have the right to vote in a decertification election, and our representatives will be working with the NLRB to get the election scheduled as soon as possible. All unionized nurses at SOMC will have the opportunity to vote through a secret ballot about whether or not they want HPAE to continue to represent them.

“Many of our nurses working today never had a chance to vote on whether they wanted union representation. This election will give all of them an opportunity to be heard about this important issue.

“We support the rights of nurses and their ability to exercise their federally protected rights in this important matter.

“In the meantime, as this legal process plays out, we will continue to negotiate in good faith with HPAE for a new labor contract at SOMC – just as we also continue to do for the contracts at Jersey Shore University Medical Center and Palisades Medical Center.”

— Rick Mellerup


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