Barton Health nurses to vote on joining union
For only the second time in the organization’s history, a group of employees at Barton Health will vote on whether or not they want to unionize.
If the approximately 150 registered nurses who are eligible to vote in the upcoming election this week decide to unionize, they will become the only union-represented employees within the health care system, which is one of the South Shore’s largest employers.
It would mark a change in how Barton’s administration and some of its most crucial employees interact. The basis and perceived need — or lack thereof — for that potential change depends on who you ask.
“Barton’s board of directors and Barton’s administration is against union representation in the organization,” Dr. Clint Purvance, president and CEO of Barton Health, told the Tribune. “We strongly encourage a direct, open communication and working relationship with our nurses and with all of our employees without an outside third party being involved in that.”
The outside third party, the California Nurses Association, sees things differently.
“Right now the work environment is not great,” said Jennifer Lemmon, assistant director of organizing. “The hospital is trying to create a real divisiveness among the nurses.”
Purvance disagrees with that characterization.
This week’s election is slated for Tuesday and Wednesday, according to a notice of election filing with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board. The vote will be by secret ballot.
Nearly 30 years ago, a similar election took place, according to Elizabeth Stork, Barton’s human resources administrative director. More than 50 percent of nurses voted against unionizing, opting instead to remain independent.
“Since then, management and staff have been able to work through concerns and problems internally to resolve issues and come to mutually beneficial agreements,” Stork said in an email. “It is Barton Health’s intention to continue open dialogue resulting in a positive and open environment benefiting patients, nurses, physicians, and staff.”
However, the upcoming vote could call all of that into question. Barton’s leadership and CNA are in disagreement as to how all parties involved reached this point.
There are a few variables at play, according to Purvance.
On a big-picture level, there is a great deal of uncertainty in the health care field in general, he said, pointing to recent attempts at the federal level to reform health care. Locally, many of the younger nurses have some experience with unions, lending to a preference to unionize.
Additionally, Barton has seen turnover in the past year that muddied internal communication.
“And so we had a breakdown in some of our communication from nursing up into administration and that since has been resolved,” Purvance said. “And now we have very good open, direct dialogue daily with our nurses and that’s going very well …”
The Tribune attempted to coordinate an interview with a Barton nurse through CNA. However, Lemmon said several nurse she reached out to feared speaking to the media on the record prior to the vote.
“There’s some concern about potential retaliation ahead of the vote,” Lemmon said, adding that Barton has been meeting with nurses in groups and on an individual basis in an attempt to sow divisions ahead of the vote. Some nurses have said they felt “harassed,” Lemmon added.
Barton’s Stork says there are no reports of nurses being harassed by management. If so, they would thoroughly investigate.
“Both Barton and CNA are providing nurses with information,” Stork said in response to CNA. “Barton is providing accurate and factual information through print as well as education sessions ensuring nurses feel educated and supported to make the best decision at the time of the vote. All information being distributed by Barton to our nurses is in compliance with the National Labor Relations Act. Barton has a strict anti-harassment policy, which we take seriously.”
At the end of the day, the upcoming vote is about making sure Barton’s nurses have the necessary tools to provide the best possible patient care, Lemmon says.
Best possible patient care is one of the few points iterated by both sides.
“The nurses have a right to unionize and administration is fully supportive of that right and for their right to vote,” Purvance said. “And whether the nurses decide to have a union or not, administration will continue to work with them with our core values of respectful communication and safety and efficiency … that working relationship and that commitment to our nurses will not change. We are 100 percent pro nursing here.”