David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Union Wins Election at UCSF Stanford Healthcare
by David Bacon

PALO ALTO, CA (11/23/98) -- When the polling began at the two big, state-of-the-art hospitals on the Stanford University campus, over a thousand workers on dozens of work schedules were ready to vote on whether or not to join a union. Many of them had tried before -- this was the latest of multiple attempts made over the last two decades.

The balloting went on for two days.

Finally, late Friday afternoon the voting stopped and the counting began. And when the results were announced, union supporters cheered and cried. Service Employees Union Local 715 had been chosen by 770 employees, while only 451 voted had voted against it.

Ron Ruggiero, Local 715's organizing director, called the results a victory over fear and intimidation, alleging that hospital management continued to commit unfair labor practices until the last minute. "But people remained focused on the reasons why they wanted the union in the first place," he explained.

For twelve years, Lou Williams has been the unit secretary in the B-2 outpatient facility at Stanford Hospital, one of the nation's leading healthcare institutions. But providing top-of-the-line medical care hasn't provided a paycheck that ensures the survival of many of her coworkers, she says.

"Given the resources of this institution, I find it unbelievable that so many people here work two or three jobs just to make ends meet," she explains. In her department, salaries are so low that the fact that workers put in only 7.5 hours a day instead of the normal 8 is enough to deprive them of needed income.

Economic pressure is just one reason Williams and her coworkers mounted one of the largest union-organizing efforts at California hospitals in many years. The campaign included 1500 nursing assistants, housekeepers, dietary employees, janitors, lab assistants and patient transport workers at Stanford Hospital and the adjoining Lucille Packard Children's Hospital -- the largest unit of hospital workers to vote for union representation nationally this year.

In September workers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a union election. But subsequent events proved to be an unpleasant foretaste of a new and bitter style of labor relations in the newly-merged UCSF-Stanford Medical Center. A year ago, the huge hospital on Parnassus Heights at the University of California San Francisco was merged with the two hospitals on the Stanford campus to create a single giant medical complex.

The move was criticized for removing San Francisco's state-of-the-art teaching hospital from oversight by the UC Board of Regents, and turning it over, along with the private Stanford facilities, to a new entity not subject to public control. At the same time, UC unions publicly warned that the move would lead to job losses, and that workers rights would suffer once public oversight ended.

Stanford's hardball campaign against the union seems to give credence to those warnings.

In the weeks leading to the election, employees in the Stanford hospitals were divided into groups, and herded into meetings with Oliver Bell and Byron Clay, two consultants employed by The Burke Group, a shadowy company with a history of conducting anti-union campaigns around the country.

When the meetings first started, a coworker told Sue Ramirez, a film librarian in the pediatric radiology department, that he had gone to a meeting conducted by someone from the labor board. Ramirez' supervisor, Sandy Malet, then assigned her to go to one of the meetings as well. Malet told her she would be receiving "NLRB training" from an NLRB representative.

At the meeting, "Bell told me he was totally neutral," Ramirez recalls, "that he was just there to give us factual information. I asked him if he worked for The Burke Group, and he said absolutely not. He told us he came from Labor Information Services, and had a license from the government to talk to workers like us. He had brochures from the NLRB, which he had highlighted and gave out to us."

Bell treated Ramirez and her colleagues to a two-hour harangue, listing dozens of reasons why they should vote against the union. They didn't need one, he argued, because they were already represented by their managers, and should give them another chance. "He wasn't neutral at all -- everything he said was against the union," Ramirez explains. "When he told us that the union would just take our dues and go somewhere else, he even started flapping his arms like a vulture. I was so disturbed that I went to my supervisor afterwards and asked her who had presented the meeting. She said the NLRB."

Lou Williams, who went to a similar meeting, also says Bell denied he was employed by The Burke Group. "He was very hostile to the union," she recalls.

While pretending to be an NLRB representative might lend a certain credibility to a union-buster's anti-union speeches, such conduct is completely illegal. Stanford denied the conduct had taken place, although Mike Lassiter, a spokesperson for UCSF Stanford Medical Center, said "there may have been some problems in communication." He confirmed that The Burke Group was hired "to make sure employees are familiar with the National Labor Relations Act, and to get training about labor law," and denied the outfit was hired to campaign against the union.

But when local State Assemblyman Tom Lempert organized a public forum on October 29 at a local Palo Alto community center, where workers could hear from both the union and management, the hospital refused to attend. "The National Labor Relations Act rules under which this election is being conducted prevent the type of forum you suggest from truly providing employees with a balanced view of the issues," said Peter Van Etten, UCSF/Stanford's CEO in a letter to the legislator.

Hiring an anti-union consultant to educate workers about labor law might be unusual in any workplace, but it is even more so at Stanford. On the faculty of the university's law school is one of the most knowledgeable authorities on U.S. labor law - Professor William Gould III, who stepped down in August as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. Gould was never asked to give any advice or training to employees on their legal rights.

When pressed, Lassiter added that Bell had an additional duty: "If he's asked, he is to communicate our position that we are already providing some of the highest wages and benefits, and that we don't believe our employees need a union." Lassiter wouldn't say how much the medical center is paying The Burke Group. Typical hourly rates for Burke Group consultants rage from $145-185, according to filings with the Department of Labor.

Labor Information Services has the same Malibu address and phone number as The Burke Group, and takes messages for Oliver Bell. Bell, however, didn't respond to requests for an interview left at that number, or at his phone in the hospital.

While the medical center won't divulge the cost of the meetings with Bell and other Burke Group consultants, each one of 1500 employees who will vote in the election is being required to attend two two-hour meetings, for a total of 6000 lost work-hours. At a hypothetical $8.00/hour average wage, the cost to the hospital would approach $50,000. At $150/hour, the fee for the consultants for a single meeting would be $300.

The Department of Labor requires consultants to file forms within 30 days of signing a contract to persuade employees not to join a union. At the end of that contract they have to declare how much they were paid. No forms, however, have been filed for any contract between The Burke Group or Labor Information Services and the medical center.

The Burke Group and Labor Information Services have a history of NLRB cases in which their client companies have been found guilty of misconduct. In a 1995 case regarding Sweet Street Desserts, Inc., several workers claimed a consultant was identified as coming from the NLRB. Although the judge hearing the case thought the workers' recollection might have been mistaken, there were so many other legal violations by the employer he ordered a new election.

Then in 1996, Labor Information Systems, including Bell himself, were charged by NLRB Region 32 with conducting an illegal campaign for the newly-opened Oakland K-Mart store. According to an LM-21 form signed by David Burke, founder of The Burke Group, K-Mart paid LIS $163,028 for 500 hours of work, Bell himself was paid $24,000.

In one of the complaint's key allegations, the board charged that the consultants "at anti-union meetings involving both large groups of employees and other meetings involving smaller groups of employees, told employees or otherwise gave employees the impression that they were agents or representatives of the Board and were speaking and acting on behalf of the Board." The complaint was later settled when K-Mart paid back wages to a worker fired for union activity, and posted a notice advising employees of their union rights.

Professor Gould said he viewed the medical center's relationship with the consultants with concern. "I want Stanford to be a good citizen, and follow the best example of labor relations policies," he explained. "If it is shown that an impression was created that consultants represented the National Labor Relations Board, that is grounds to set aside an election. That would result in unnecessary expense and a wasteful use of the hospital's and university's resources."

Union organizers and supporters, however, exposed the illegal activity, according to Local 715's Ron Ruggiero. "The unionbusters completely lost their credibility," he asserted. "We got the facts out, and their cover was blown."

In the meantime, in the days prior to the balloting, over 700 workers openly signed a petition supporting union representation, which was distributed throughout the hospitals in booklet form. Workers wore union buttons, while active supporters visited their coworkers at home and talked to them at work. "When people overcame their fear, and saw that it was possible to support the union openly, the union became unstoppable," Ruggiero concluded.

If hospital management recognizes the election results, and doesn't file legal objections, bargaining for a contract could start within weeks. Meanwhile, Local 715 intends to go on and organize the remaining 1500 workers at the hospital who still have no union, and were not covered by the voting.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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