Missteps could lead to union’s removal – Public hearings tomorrow

MIDLAND — With one of the nation’s longest hospital nurses’ strikes entering its seventh month, observers are questioning whether strikers at Northern Michigan Hospital can win further concessions from their employer. Officials of Teamsters Local 406, which represents the nurses, should re-evaluate strategy and priorities to avoid facing removal of the union as bargaining representative, according to a labor analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Paul Kersey, labor research associate for the policy center, said, “It’s pretty clear that the Teamsters miscalculated their ability to affect the hospital’s operations. Signs were there from the beginning that this strike was risky.”

Kersey said prior to the strike the union had modest support among nurses. When a government-supervised secret-ballot election to install the Teamsters as collective bargaining representative was certified in January 2002, the Teamsters won narrowly with fewer than half of the nurses at the Petoskey, Mich. hospital voting in favor of union representation. Not all nurses chose to vote.

“From the beginning, about half of the nurses at Northern Michigan Hospital were either opposed to or at best ambivalent about the union and were unlikely to go on strike,” said Kersey. “That in turn meant the hospital would not have to bring in quite so many replacement nurses, and would have an easier time working them into the system.”

By the union’s own estimates, more than 40 percent of nurses opted to continue working. The hospital claims fewer than half the nurses are on strike.

Nurses filed a union decertification petition, although no vote to throw out the union is likely until numerous unfair labor practice charges are resolved. “The possibility of the union’s removal only increases the Teamsters’ difficulties, and puts more pressure on the union to resolve the strike quickly,” said Kersey. “The longer this strike goes on, the more likely the Teamsters’ supporters are to lose faith in the union’s ability to win a good contract, or to just move on to other jobs,” he said.

Among the issues that have been raised by union officials are the hospital’s refusal to establish a committee to oversee patient care and patient-to-staff ratios, pensions, and the institution of the “union shop,” under which nurses who refuse to join the union are required anyway to pay the union an amount approximating regular union membership dues.

The hospital has stated that it will not agree to a union shop clause, and hospital spokesman Tom Spencer has stated that this may be the largest single obstacle to a settlement. Teamsters Local 406 business agent Sharon Norton countered that the sides have yet to negotiate on the union shop question. Twenty-three states have prohibited “union shop” clauses under state right-to-work laws.

Community hearings sponsored by the Michigan Department of Consumer and Industry Services on the impact of the strike have been scheduled for July 10 and 11.

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