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Labor leaders on alert as Butte veterans center workers seek to unionize

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Labor leaders on alert as Butte veterans center workers seek to unionize

Nov 29, 2023 | 8:49 pm ET
By Keila Szpaller
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Labor leaders on alert as Butte veterans center workers seek to unionize
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(Illustration by Getty Images)

Labor representatives are on high alert in Butte heading into a union election at the Southwest Montana Veterans’ Home.

Erin Foley, principal officer of Teamsters Local Union No. 2, said Wednesday workers at the center for veterans will vote Dec. 19 and 20 on whether to join the union.

The Veterans’ Home provides skilled nursing care to honorably discharged veterans and their spouses. It currently has 44 beds at 100% capacity and counts 90 total employees, according to an administrator.

Eduro Healthcare of Salt Lake City operates the facility. Eduro general counsel Dustin Monroe said just three of its facilities have union representation; its website lists 41 facilities in the West and Midwest, including two in Butte, and more than 2,100 beds.

In Butte, the unionization effort at the veterans center would affect roughly 26 certified nursing assistants, among the lowest paid healthcare workers in the industry.

The vote comes on the heels of allegations of union-busting tactics at St. Peter’s Health in Helena this fall — the hospital denied the allegations but ended up firing a pricey labor consultant in the dispute.

It also comes in the midst of a national resurgence of momentum for labor — in a city known as the “Gibraltar of unionism.”

Foley said the push to unionize started in April and hasn’t encountered significant roadblocks. Likewise, officials for the veterans home and staffing partner Eduro said they will respect election results.

However, a request by Eduro to delay the vote has union representatives and labor watchdogs on the lookout for any attempts to dissuade workers to support the move to unionize.

Foley said workers are entitled to a “speedy election,” but the union agreed to the delay of a few days outside the proposed window of Dec. 4 to 15.

“We as a union know that these people want to be unionized so we’re not afraid of giving them another week or two to do whatever it is that they’re going to try to do,” Foley said.

A union watchdog, however, said postponing elections can be problematic, generally speaking, and the healthcare industry spends more money on union-busting than any other.

“One of the most common tactics used to defeat workplace democracies and unions is delay,” said Bob Funk, of LaborLab, a nonprofit labor watchdog organization.

He said those tactics can be pushing a union election to give an employer time to “coerce and intimidate” workers or postponing work on a contract. Funk said he sees those strategies around the country.

“I’m not necessarily accusing the center (in Butte) of union busting, but it does set off a lot of alarm bells,” he said of the delay.

However, officials with the veterans center said they will respect the outcome of the vote, and they are not working against the effort to unionize.

Chris Cotton, administrator for the veterans home, said the outcome will be up to employees. He said they have a choice, and they’re free to express it in their vote.

“We’re not pushing back,” Cotton said. “We know the history of Butte. I’m a Butte kid myself.”

Monroe, with Eduro, said the delay amounted to just a week or so, and it was meant to give more people the opportunity to vote within their normal work shift.

“It was not done with any intention to bust the union,” Monroe said.

He said he did not know whether Eduro or a private lawyer hired to represent the company in the matter had any “educational meetings” planned for staff.

“I would just say that we intend to respect the results of the election,” Monroe said. That’s what we’re required to do under the law, and that’s what we’re going to do. And it’s the employees’ choice whether to unionize.”

Foley, with the Teamsters, said the union serves more than 3,000 members in Montana “from A to Z, astronauts to zookeepers and everything in between.”

She said many health care workers move from one facility to another, and the interest in unionizing at the veterans’ center came from staff who had worked at places that already had unions and saw the benefits.

She also said the push came out of frustration from the way workers are managed, including frequent schedule changes, some people getting all shifts and some getting barely enough for a paycheck, and favoritism in raises.

The union effort requires a simple majority, 50% plus one.

Foley said CNAs are not only among the lowest paid in the industry — a median of $30,180 for home health to $35,740 for nursing assistants per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — they also have some of the highest injury rates from all the hands-on work they do changing linens, changing patients, and helping them shower and use the toilet.

“Going through this process gives the workers a voice,” Foley said. “And it gives a voice to the workers who are caring for the veterans who served us. And what better advocates for our veterans than the people who are taking care of them now?”