Upstart union wins a plurality in Sonoma County hospital vote

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An upstart union challenging the giant Service Employees International Union won a plurality Friday in a disputed and closely watched union vote at a Sonoma County Hospital.

But the National Labor Relations Board, which oversaw the vote at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, said it could not declare a winner because the final margin was close and 17 ballots were challenged.

“At this point, we don’t have a determinative result,” said Tim Peck, assistant to the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board.

During the two-day voting, the breakaway National Union of Healthcare Workers garnered 283 votes, compared to 13 for the rival Service Employees International Union.

However, 263 voters cast ballots for no union in the tightly contested race.

Federal election officials will have to examine the challenged ballots and see if any side files formal objections to the voting, Peck said.

The result was a crushing defeat for the SEIU, which has more than 2 million members nationwide and is facing a stiff challenge in California from the newly formed union, which doesn’t have a single dues-paying member.

“We are disappointed and we wish the Santa Rosa workers well,” said Steve Trossman, an SEIU spokesman.

The new union claimed victory.

“We stuck together for six years and we finally did it,” said Nancy Timberlake, a telemetry technician at the hospital.

Friday’s results culminate a more than five-year union-organizing campaign at the 278-bed hospital, Sonoma County’s largest. But the protracted battle has generated national interest at a time when healthcare tops the congressional agenda and the U.S. labor movement hopes to reverse decades of declining membership.

Labor activists hoped a victory at Santa Rosa would propel unionization drives at other Catholic healthcare facilities statewide. Santa Rosa Memorial is part of the Orange County-based St. Joseph Health System, a major provider throughout the state.

But the drive became entangled in an acrimonious intra-union dispute after the SEIU last January took over the Oakland-based local that had been representing some 150,000 healthcare workers statewide. That local had also spearheaded the union effort at Santa Rosa Memorial.

The SEIU said it acted because of financial and other improprieties. But local backers called the takeover a power play by the SEIU and its president, Andy Stern, one of the nation’s most influential labor leaders.

Outraged backers of the former local, led by Sal Rosselli, the former local chief, then broke away and formed the new union. The insurgent union has been mounting a spirited campaign to woo workers away from SEIU, though it still hasn’t negotiated a single contract.