Local Petition Supports Southern Ocean Medical Center Nurses

Comes Just Before Election Attempting to Decertify Union
Nov 14, 2018

A few months ago, when Fran Agostini’s husband was in Southern Ocean Medical Center for two nights, Fran noticed something. The nurses were busy. Very busy!

“I saw (nurse call) lights going off everywhere, in every room,” said Agostini, who added the lights kept nurses and nursing assistants running around.

So when she followed news reports about the situation at SOMC, where some 300 unionized nurses have been working without a contract since the end of July and are engaged in what can only be described as contentious negotiations with the hospital’s parent company, Hackensack Meridian Health, Agostini decided she had to get involved.

“When I read in the news that the nurses, who have cared for my family, were struggling with the hospital administrators to get an agreement to make sure enough nurses are on staff to care for patients, I felt I had to do something to help them in their efforts,” said Agostini.

She drew up a petition: “We the undersigned support the nurses and caregivers of Southern Ocean Medical Center Local 5138 in their effort to increase nurse/patient ratios to satisfactory levels and provide optimal healthcare to patients.”

Agostini collected about 360 signatures and delivered the signed petitions on Monday to Mildred “Micki” Patrick, the vice president of nursing and chief nurse executive at SOMC.

“I don’t know if John Lloyd (the Co-CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health) will see them; I hope so,” Agostini remarked.

“After my husband was hospitalized this summer, I realized just how overwhelmed the staff are trying to care for so many patients at the same time,” said Agostini. “Then to see those same nurses who saved my husband are now in a struggle to protect us, their patients, I was overcome with a desire to help support the nurses. I wanted the nurses to understand the community stands with them, and we will help them to make sure our hospital has enough nurses to care for every patient.”

The petition was delivered at a critical time in the long, drawn-out negotiating battle between Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE) Local 5138 and Hackensack Meridian. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 13 and 14, SOMC nurses would be voting in a National Labor Relations Board election to see if the union local will survive at the hospital.

At the end of September a group of SOMC nurses filed a petition with the NLRB to decertify the local – in other words, win the right to not be represented by the union (and not have to pay union dues) in negotiations. If more than 50 percent of the hospital’s nurses voted to decertify, the local would be effectively killed.

The NLRB tossed out the petition, saying it didn’t have the requisite number of signatures: 30 percent of the work force. But in mid-October the dissenters filed another petition, this time with the appropriate number of John Hancocks, so the NLRB scheduled the secret ballot election of Nov. 13-14.

Both sides accuse the other of intimidation and obstruction.

“As nurses, we formed our union to give every nurse a voice in patient care and provide workplace protections,” said Barbara Bosch, RN and president of HPAE Local 5138. “We are grateful for our patients and our community who understand that our first priority is caring for our patients’ safety. Yet, we are bargaining with a large healthcare corporation which has attempted to take away our voice and our rights during contract negotiations.”

The union says Hackensack Meridian illegally distributed literature and spoke to nurses about how to decertify the union.

The corporation disagrees.

“Nurses at our hospital filed a new petition with the National Labor Relations Board on October 17, 2018, to request a vote about whether all SOMC nurses should continue to be represented by Health Professionals and Allied Employees,” Regina M. Foley, RN, PhD, MBA, chief operating officer at SOMC, said in a written statement issued on Oct. 24. “We applaud the determination of our nurses to voice their opinion about this important issue through an anonymous election conducted by the NLRB. We will support their efforts to have a free and fair election at the earliest possible time.

“HPAE has demonstrated that it does not want SOMC nurses to be able to vote on this issue. The union sought to undermine the nurses’ first decertification attempt and made false public statements about nurses’ motivation to pursue a decertification vote. We expect that HPAE will try to block any election on this petition.

“We believe that all SOMC nurses should be heard on this critical issue,” Foley continued. “Therefore, we are calling on HPAE to support SOMC nurses and not continue to attempt to keep these nurses from having the opportunity to vote in a democratic, anonymous election ballot. More than 70 percent of nurses working at SOMC today never had a choice about union representation – HPAE was already in place. We also are calling on HPAE to stop its ongoing pressure and interrogation of SOMC nurses, which it has done in person, by phone and in other ways ever since nurses filed their first petition.”

According to a statement released by Hackensack Meridian on Nov. 5, “We met with HPAE on Monday for several hours, after meeting for two days last week. This included a Tuesday session that ran until about 4 a.m. After these three days of discussion, however, both parties agreed that we were not close to reaching a tentative agreement. In fact despite some movement on Monday, the union has focused more on asking numerous questions about proposals, some of which have been on the table since July.

“After nearly 30 bargaining sessions and countless hours of bargaining in good faith, the Southern Ocean Medical Center bargaining committee shared its last, best and final offer last week with HPAE Local 5138, which the union continues to review. The union may:

“• Accept this offer and bring it to members for ratification;

“• Decline the offer; or

“• Call a strike and attempt to rally nurses to walk off their jobs.”

When delivering her petitions, Agostini was joined by Wyatt Earp, president of the Monmouth Ocean County Central Labor Council (and also chairman of the Ocean County Democratic Committee), and Joe Mangino of the New Jersey Organizing Project.

— Rick Mellerup


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