Final Decisions on Challenged Ballots May Be Years Away

MIDLAND — Thursday's vote by nurses at Northern Michigan Hospital (NMH) in Petoskey was inconclusive. The initial tally indicated that nurses had voted to remove local 406 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters by a vote of 178 to 156. But 165 ballots were challenged during the course of the voting. These votes were not counted, but clearly have the potential to change the outcome. Consequently, the final determination of the Teamsters’ status will await a lengthy process of hearings and appeals before officials of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and perhaps before the federal courts.

A Teamsters website stated that the bulk of ballot challenges were made by non-striking nurses, and were based on claims that the ballots were filed by nurses who had taken jobs at other hospitals and therefore had effectively quit their jobs at NMH.

"The unusually high number of challenges means that reaching a final result is likely to be a lengthy process," said Robert Hunter, senior fellow in labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, and a former NLRB member.

The procedure for resolving the dispute will begin with hearings held by the regional office of the NLRB to determine the disposition of the challenged ballots. "That is likely to take six months," Hunter said. "Then if there is an appeal — and with the high number of ballots that have been challenged, I would be surprised if there wasn’t one — then that would be handled by the five members of the National Labor Relations Board itself. From there, it is conceivable that there would be appeals in federal Appellate Court. This process could take two years or more to fully sort itself out," Hunter said.

In the interim, the hospital is under no legal obligation to negotiate with the Teamsters because their status as representative of the nurses remains in doubt. The hospital also retains the option of issuing a final request that striking nurses return to work, and then hiring permanent replacements for nurses that remain on strike.

As to the allegations surrounding the challenged ballots, Hunter said there are legitimate grounds for a challenge, but that the issue will be very difficult to settle quickly. "Whether or not these ballots will be allowed will turn on whether the nurses themselves intended to return to NMH employment," Hunter said.

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