The great divide
Enloe employees rally for and against union representation
When Kelly Juarez, a single mom, found out her newborn daughter had a permanent heart condition, her world began to spin, but it spun out of control when she got hit with an $11,000 bill for flying her daughter to Stanford Hospital.
Although Juarez has worked at Enloe Medical Center as a monitor technician for the past 15 years, her health insurance company wouldn’t touch the bill and Enloe didn’t help her. She didn’t expect it to.
“I was mortified,” Juarez said. “I ended up calling the financial adviser at Stanford, not Enloe.”
Enloe officials believe stories like that of the Juarez family are being used by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), now locked in a battle with the hospital over representation, to win sympathy and thus bolster membership—and dues money—by discrediting the hospital.
In April 2004, an election was held for Enloe’s nursing assistants, lab assistants, secretaries, dietary workers and housekeepers. Although a majority of them voted to join the SEIU, Enloe is appealing the certification of the election.
In February a federal judge upheld the election. But Enloe became aware that some people had been given the wrong-colored ballots and potentially voted in another unit’s election, so hospital administrators decided to appeal to the National Labor Relations Board for another vote. The appeal could take another six months.
“We appealed [a union election] so the employees who voted ‘no’ would have an avenue for their voices to be heard,” said Carol Linscheid, vice president of human resources. “I feel like they’re the least-heard employees,” she said. “We believe the majority of employees don’t want representation.”
The two sides came head-to-head at a rally held Saturday, June 25, across the street from the hospital on The Esplanade.
About 250 demonstrators marched around the hospital chanting “Democracy now!” and “Union busting has got to go,” while cars honked from The Esplanade and supporters cheered and blew whistles. Union organizers, local politicians, nurses, community members and employees from Kaiser Permanente and Mercy Medical Center in Redding came to the rally to offer their support. Many displayed purple T-shirts that read, “Ask me about democracy at Enloe.”
When asked, the answer was, “There’s no such thing as democracy at Enloe,” said Janice Noffsinger, a computer operator who has worked at Enloe for 24 years. “You’re looked down on like a traitor if you voted for the union,” she added.
On the side of the street closer to Enloe, a much smaller group of about two-dozen employees who voted against the union organized a rally of their own in front of the hospital at the same time as the union rally. They held up signs that said they were thankful for a recent job-market adjustment that increased their pay.
Enloe is trying to appease its employees by giving raises, but a one-time raise doesn’t compensate for the escalating cost of living in Chico, Juarez said.
“We want good wages, good benefits and respect,” Noffsinger said. The only way Enloe will listen is if the community gets involved and brings these issues out into the open, she said.
Not everyone thinks the union—or community involvement—is a good idea.
Talking to various Enloe employees made Linscheid realize many of them feel intimidated by unions, she said. “It sounds to me like the union wants more members,” Linscheid said. “They’re a business like any other. They want to add dues-paying members.”
Enloe has passed out fliers and taken out newspaper ads to tell its side, calling the rally part of a “corporate campaign” orchestrated by the SEIU, not local workers.
If the appeal goes through and another election takes place, Linscheid said Enloe wants more-experienced federal agents to conduct the election. In the April 2004 election, there were 263 “yes” votes for union representation of the “service unit,” 245 “no” votes against it and 92 people who didn’t vote. But these numbers don’t take into account the wrong ballots, Linscheid said.
Although the union would be good for average workers, it wouldn’t allow for workers who excel to be rewarded with pay increases, said Keith Mitten, who has worked as an educator at Enloe for the past six years.
Mitten doesn’t think the union is necessary because he considers Enloe a fair employer and prefers having a direct relationship with administrators. “If there’s a union, it puts another barrier in the chain,” Mitten said. “And it’s costly.” He thinks the union has divided the employees and caused dissension in the workplace and in the community. “The public attack on our community-based hospital is disgusting,” Mitten said. “I think it should be handled internally.”