Nurses Union at Southern Ocean Medical Center Scores a Victory

Government Watchdog Won’t Allow Decertification Election
Oct 17, 2018

Two weeks ago The SandPaper reported that contract negotiations between Health Professionals and Allied Employees Local 5138, the union that represents almost 300 nurses at Southern Ocean Medical Center, and Hackensack Meridian Health, SOMC’s parent company, had turned into a game of hardball. This past week HPAE took a 1-0 lead.

On Sept. 28, the union announced that it had received a notice from the National Labor Relations Board that a SOMC nurse had filed a petition to hold a decertification election at the Manahawkin hospital. If 50 percent or more of the nurses voted in a secret ballot to decertify the union, HPAE would no longer have the right to represent them at the bargaining table. Nor would nurses be required to join the union or pay dues to it anymore. In effect, the local would be killed off.

But Last Wednesday, HPAE announced that on Oct. 5 the NLRB had informed both it and HMH the decertification election had been dismissed. The petition would have needed signatures from at least 30 percent of the SOMC nurses to force a vote. The NLRB determined an insufficient percentage of the nurses had signed. Therefore the election was canceled, a victory for the union.

“After receiving notice of an attempt to decertify our union, nurses were confident that this was a marginal group, while most nurses are standing together to demand a union contract that protects patient safety and workers’ rights,” said HPAE President Debbie White. “For the last couple of years since the health systems merged, Hackensack Meridian has conducted an anti-union campaign that has been driven by consultants, not by nurses.”

The union has accused Hackensack Meridian of illegally disseminating literature and holding meetings that were used to explain how nurses could leave the union as well as spreading misinformation about HPAE leaders. HPAE says similar attempts have been made at other Hackensack Meridian facilities, but the strongest attempts were at SOMC.

“While nurses and health professionals continue to advocate for patient safety, corporate executives are leading efforts to intimidate and bully in an attempt to silence our collective voice as a union of health professionals,” said Barbara Bosch, R.N. and president of HPAE Local 5138 at SOMC. “Throughout these negotiations administration has refused to respond to our attempts to standardize safe patient limits.”

Hackensack University Health Network and Meridian Health merged in the summer of 2016. Only one of the former’s hospitals at the time of the merger – Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen – was unionized, and Hackensack hadn’t acquired it until March 2016. So the Hackensack executives who came over to the new corporation in the merger aren’t experienced in dealing with unions. Meanwhile, some of Meridian Health’s hospitals had been unionized.

Those executives now have been forced onto a quick learning schedule. Nurses and health professionals represented by HPAE at three Hackensack Meridian Health hospitals – the approximately 300 RNs at SOMC; about 900 registered nurses, LPNs, technical staff, service workers and skilled maintenance team members at Palisades Medical Center; and some 1,100 registered nurses at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune – are currently in contract negotiations with Hackensack Meridian Health. All of those employees have been working without a contract since July.

The NLRB’s decision to dismiss the decertification election is clearly a loss for Hackensack Meridian Health. SOMC Chief Operating Officer Regina M. Foley sent a message addressed to “Leaders and Team Members” at the hospital on Oct. 2 that showed her company had hoped the decertification effort would be successful.

“HPAE is trying to prevent SOMC nurses from having an opportunity to vote for themselves whether or not they want union representation,” the message read. “The union is utilizing unfair labor practice charges regarding harmonization that it previously filed with the National Labor Relations Board to block the election. Unions commonly use blocking charges when facing a decertification vote.

“We anticipate receiving official notice from the NLRB that the decertification election is on hold, for now. We will continue to fully support our nurses, and hope they will soon be able to exercise their federally-protected right to vote on this important matter.

“SOMC nurses, HPAE’s own members, petitioned for the decertification election, This is entirely their effort to remove the union. Many SOMC nurses became members of the union without having a chance to vote about whether or not they even want HPAE representation. This election would be an opportunity for every nurse’s voice to be heard. We are disappointed that HPAE is working against its own membership to deny them this right to vote.”

After the NLRB’s action, Nancy Radwin, a Hackensack Meridian Health representative, said the labor board ruled the petition was short by only a few signatures.

Still, a defeat is a defeat, close or not. The battle between HPAE, New Jersey’s largest union of registered nurses and healthcare professionals with some 13,000 members, and Hackensack Meridian Health, the state’s largest health care organization with 16 hospitals, 4,520 beds, approximately 33,000 employees and some 6,500 staff physicians, is a game of hardball, not hand grenades or horseshoes.

— Rick Mellerup

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