The biggest union feud since the AFL-CIO split three years ago, some would say, began in Ohio. The way Dave Regan tells it, the Service Employees union (SEIU) first began its effort to organize Catholic hospitals there in the small city of Lorain, just west of Cleveland, in 1999. Regan is president of a union that spans Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, one of SEIU’s newly merged megalocals at the heart of the international union’s ambitious plans for turning around labor’s decline. The 500 or so nurses at the facility faced, he recalls, a “classic, textbook, very intense, very nasty election environment.” The hospital hired antiunion consultants and campaigned aggressively against unionization, pulling in nurses for mandatory staff meetings, as well as for intimidating one-on-ones with their supervisors. According to one organizer, nuns serving as hospital administrators even hinted to the nurses that voting union was a sin.
It was a typical kind of hardball, really–the mix of inside arm-twisting and outside unionbusting expertise that marks four out of every five union votes in this country. Though such campaigns always begin with majority interest, only half result in a union victory, as Regan knows from trying to win traditional labor board elections, shop by shop, for eighteen years in places like eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. “It’s incredibly difficult work,” he says.
In Lorain, the nurses did vote in the union, by a slim, sixteen-vote margin–and then, also typically, faced a thirteen-month battle to win their first contract. Along the way, the nurses called two daylong strikes to block the hospital’s demand for an open shop; each time, management punished the strikers with four-day suspensions. Through contract fights in subsequent years, Regan says, “we struggled and fought and built an organization that our members there are very proud of”; one nurse, galvanized by the experience, went on to become a state senator.
The hospital in Lorain is part of a Catholic chain that is the largest hospital system in the state. In many places, in the wake of steel mill closures, these hospitals have become the biggest employer in town. “So we started to think about the system as a whole,” says Regan, “and we decided to create a campaign the object of which was to secure the right for Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP) workers, across the system, to be able to vote on whether to join the union without going through the intense, negative conditions that existed in 1999.” What they sought was “employer neutrality,” the brass ring of today’s large-scale union organizing campaigns, which use corporate campaigns to pressure employers not to fight unionization drives.
By 2004, CHP workers in Springfield, west of Columbus, anxious over a recent merger, were eager to unionize. But the Lorain experience was a bruiser, and another union had run an election at one of the merged facilities and lost badly. Joyce Moscato, who would soon head the statewide campaign for SEIU, urged caution. She met with the workers and talked about what it would take to win fair organizing rules across the state. “They got it,” Moscato recalls. “They understood that they could be the leaders in this fight, and they likened it to the civil rights movement.” By spring 2005, workers from Catholic hospitals in Youngstown, Toledo, Cincinnati and Lorain sat down with the Springfield workers to craft a statewide campaign for employer neutrality. A hundred of them, from sixteen hospitals, showed up at CHP headquarters to present their demand. They weren’t even allowed inside.