Effort to throw out union at USC Verdugo Hills stymied

A national labor board director on Thursday rejected a petition by healthcare workers to dissolve their union at a USC-owned hospital in Glendale for being filed two days late.

Mori Rubin, regional director for the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, dismissed the petition filed by USC Verdugo Hills Hospital employee Andrew Brown on Oct. 5 because it was filed during a time period — right before the workers’ contract was set to expire and new negotiations typically occur — that is protected from decertification threats.

The cut-off date was Oct. 3, Rubin said in a written response to Brown’s attorney, Glenn M. Taubman, citing labor regulations and previous cases as explanations for her decision.

Known as the insulated period, it’s meant to give “the parties to an expiring contract an opportunity to negotiate without the disruption of a rival petition,” Rubin said in her decision.

Brown, a surgical buyer who said he never wanted union representation, called the decision “disheartening.” He plans to appeal the decision by the Nov. 8 deadline.

“It doesn’t change how we care about our staff,” said Keith Hobbs, the hospital’s chief executive. “We still love our staff regardless if they’re represented … or not.”

There was a difference of opinion regarding the cut-off point for filing, Hobbs said.

“If USC values their employees, there’s a very easy way for them to show it at the bargaining table,” said Sean Wherley, a spokesman for the union, in a written statement.

The two sides will tentatively meet in mid-November to begin negotiating a new contract, Hobbs said. The existing contract is set to expire Jan. 31.

One day prior to Rubin’s decision, the fate of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, or SEIU-UHW, and its 230 members, seemed uncertain, with a request filed by Brown accusing the third-party representation of failing to achieve better wages and benefits since it was brought on board three years ago.

Union leaders countered with accusations that hospital management was turning employees against each other and against third-party representation by offering scattershot raises to non-union employees and refusing to bargain.

“They were promising us these big raises and these great benefits, but they went and pretty much accepted the first contract they were offered,” Brown said before the NLRB handed down its decision. “They didn’t really help us or protect as at all.”

“We agree they are still underpaid and are now fighting to raise their wages in bargaining,” Wherley said of the union, which was formed in 2016 and includes nursing assistants, patient services representatives, obstetrics technicians and phlebotomists.

The movement to reconsider third-party representation came from a management-driven improvement, according to Hobbs.

Hobbs said morale was low all around at the financially-failing hospital in January 2016. Since he joined, he said he’s helped instill a cultural and financial shift by cultivating personal relationships and introducing meritocratic raises.

Now “they feel they have enough trust in leadership that they don’t need a third party to represent them anymore,” Hobbs said.

Non-union workers also make more money, Hobbs said. Through raises introduced under his tenure, Hobbs said non-union employees’ average salaries are 6% more than their union counterparts. Add in the fact that union members pay 2% of their income to union dues, and it becomes an 8% increase on average, he said.

Union representatives claim the raises were a tactic to undermine the union.

According to Wherley, Hobbs promised employees a 5% raise if they voted against the union during a town hall-style event held at the hospital on Oct. 11 and 12.

Respiratory therapists, who are not in the union, were given 7% raises, Wherley said.

“They’re setting up a dynamic here to turn worker against worker,” Wherley said. “It’s not helping work relations, and it’s not helping patient care.”

Hobbs dismissed all of Wherley’s statements as rumors or bent truths.

It was the respiratory therapists who came to him a year and a half ago asking for a raise, Hobbs said.

Unionized environments typically result in a 30% gain in wage and benefits compared to non-unionized ones, according to Kent Wong, director of UCLA’s Labor Center.

“So there is a very strong economic incentive for employers to try to resist unionization,” Wong said.

The decertification petition was supported by a majority of SEIU-UHW employees, according to Brown, who is receiving his legal counsel for free from the anti-union group Nation Right to Work Foundation.

The petition only required support from 30% of the bargaining unit to move forward, the union’s general counsel Bruce Harland said.

In her decision, Rubin also rejected the claim by Brown that the petition should be allowed to move forward because he based the filing date on inaccurate information he found on the NLRB’s website.

Twitter: @lila_seidman