Fate of union at USC Verdugo Hills uncertain as members revolt

A group of healthcare workers at a USC-owned hospital in Glendale are trying to dissolve a union they fought to form just three years ago, citing disappointment with wage and benefit negotiations.

Union leaders have in turn accused USC Verdugo Hills Hospital of turning 230 employees in the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, or SEIU-UHW, 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. They didn’t really help us or protect us at all,” said Andrew Brown, a surgical buyer at the hospital who never wanted union representation.

“We agree they are still underpaid and are now fighting to raise their wages in bargaining,” said Sean Wherley, a spokesperson for the union that includes nursing assistants, patient services representatives, obstetrics technicians and phlebotomists.

Both sides are awaiting a decision by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, over whether or not a union decertification petition submitted by Brown on Oct. 5 can move forward.

The director is considering the union’s argument that the petition was improperly submitted during a time period — right before the workers’ contract is set to expire and new negotiations typically occur — that they claim is protected from decertification threats.

The union has filed two complaints with the NLRB against the hospital, alleging among other things that its management has refused to negotiate a new contract while the specter of a decertification vote looms.

“That gives the employers the ability to say ‘the union can’t get anything done for you, that’s why you should decertify,’” the union’s general counsel Bruce Harland said.

According to the hospital’s chief executive, Keith Hobbs, the hospital is exchanging potential dates to meet and bargain with union representatives.

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

Inheriting a financially failing hospital in January 2016, Hobbs said the morale was low all around. 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 salary is 6% more than their union counterparts. Add in the fact that union members also pay 2% of their income to union dues, and it becomes an 8% increase on average, he said.

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

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

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 environments, 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 is supported by a majority of SEIU-UHW employees, according to Brown, who is receiving free legal counsel from anti-union group Nation Right to Work Foundation.

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

Twitter: @lila_seidman