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News / Health / Health Wire

PeaceHealth staffers OK union in Oregon

Sacred Heart cooks, housekeepers, nurse assistants back SEIU

The Columbian
Published: May 29, 2015, 12:00am

Eugene, Ore. — Cooks, housekeepers, certified nursing assistants and other frontline employees at PeaceHealth’s Sacred Heart hospitals have voted to unionize.

Workers voted 524 to 367 to join Service Employees International Union Local 49, which is part of the largest health care union in the United States. A little more than 80 percent of the 1,100 eligible employees voted, according to a final tally Thursday night.

Employees who had worked on the campaign to unionize said they were excited, overjoyed and overwhelmed by the vote, while Vancouver-based PeaceHealth expressed disappointment.

“I finally feel like we have a chance to have a voice and make some positive changes,” said Anna Blackman, a certified nursing assistant who has been active in the campaign to join a union.

Blackman and others voting to unionize cited staffing levels and affordable health care as key priorities for workers.

Marie Stehmer, director of human resources at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center, said in a prepared statement: “We are disappointed that some of our caregivers chose to be represented by SEIU Local 49, as we prefer to maintain a direct and unrestricted relationship regarding conditions of employment.

“However, we acknowledge and respect the majority decision of those caregivers who voted this week. Most importantly, union affiliation does not alter our shared commitment to the patients and communities we serve.”

The next step will be to start surveying the newly organized employees about what is going to be important to them in bargaining and to elect a bargaining team to negotiate their first contract, said Meg Niemi, president of SEIU Local 49.

“We want to get moving right away so we can get to the negotiating table as soon as possible,” Niemi said.

Organizers had worked on the union campaign for the past year.

SEIU Local 49 represents 10,000 workers in Oregon and Washington, including 340 employees at Springfield’s McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center, where the union has represented workers since 1979.

The frontline workers have voted to join union ranks at a time of labor tension at Sacred Heart hospitals at RiverBend in Springfield and University District, near the University of Oregon campus in Eugene.

Voicing concerns about patient safety, 1,325 PeaceHealth nurses represented by the Oregon Nurses Association union launched a campaign last year to lobby for safer staffing at Sacred Heart. The nurses union represents an additional 88 nurses in PeaceHealth’s home health services.

A group of 37 hospitalists — doctors who provide around-the-clock care at Sacred Heart — formed a union in October, saying they wanted to advocate more effectively for their patients and protect their jobs from outsourcing. The hospitalists believe their union is the first of its kind in the country.

A third group, the Union of Operating Engineers, represents 59 facilities engineers who maintain the Sacred Heart hospitals and other PeaceHealth facilities in Lane County.

PeaceHealth is a nonprofit, Catholic-affiliated health care system. It operates hospitals, labs and physician groups in Alaska, Washington and Oregon, and has its headquarters in Vancouver.