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Nurses at St. Peter’s Health allege union-busting tactics; hospital defends

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Nurses at St. Peter’s Health allege union-busting tactics; hospital defends

Sep 29, 2023 | 6:51 pm ET
By Nicole Girten
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Nurses at St. Peter’s Health allege union-busting tactics; hospital defends
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Registered nurses at St. Peter’s Health clinics in Helena are alleging union-busting by hospital executives in advance of their vote on whether to unionize — but the hospital said the accusation is typical “misinformation” to gain support for labor.

The controversy stems in part from the hospital’s hire of a labor consultant — estimated to earn at least $250 an hour, according to a labor expert.

The registered nurses at St. Peter’s said they will be holding a union election next month to vote on whether to join an existing nurses union.

According to a press release, nurses filed to hold the election to join the Montana Nurses Association earlier this month, following St. Peter’s Health’s decision to cut personal leave benefits from all employees.

Since filing for the election, according to the release, executives at St. Peter’s Health started pursuing an anti-union campaign, including hiring consultant Niles Commer out of Florida to engage with nurses working to form a union. St. Peter’s defended hiring Commer in a statement, saying they’ve followed the law in all their disclosures.

But in response to the hire, a Montana-based labor watchdog filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor under the Labor Management Relations and Disclosure Act.

“Niles Commer, the out-of-state union-buster hired by St. Peter’s, has an egregious history of disregarding transparency laws designed to protect workers,” said Bob Funk, LaborLab executive director, in a press release. “Unfortunately, this is nothing new. Hospitals are some of the largest spenders on union-busting, and their consultants, like Commer, often violate disclosure rules in an attempt to stay undetected and hidden in the shadows.”

LaborLab said Commer is accused of not filing necessary reports with the U.S. Department of Labor. LaborLab also said St. Peter’s Health is required to “disclose expenditures related to their union-busting activities.”

In a statement, St. Peter’s Health said there was no violation under the Labor Management Relations and Disclosure Act related to the hiring of Commer, who they said is a “labor educator.” 

The health provider also said it’s standard practice for employers to hire outside expertise when their employees have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board.

“By law, St. Peter’s Health and Mr. Commer are well within their respective timelines to file the required disclosures,” the statement from St. Peter’s read. “This allegation is a typical union tactic to spread misinformation and discredit the employer in an attempt to gain support in advance of an election.”

St. Peter’s Health said labor educators are considered a “neutral resource for employees who feel more comfortable getting their information from a third-party instead of the organization or the union.”

The health nonprofit said while they respect the nurses’ right to unionize, the organization believes it’s in the best interests of employees to “maintain direct one-to-one relationships with the organization and their leadership partners.”

St. Peter’s Health did not respond to an email asking the cost of Commer’s contract.

However, Funk told the Daily Montanan Commer is likely making between $250 and $300 an hour, plus expenses, based on previous contracts.

If the Montana Nurses Association is selected as the bargaining representative, the clinic nurses would then be able to negotiate wages, benefits, schedules and seniority independent of the existing acute RN contract, according to a joint statement from nurses and the association.

“As we work on the front lines serving Helena and surrounding communities, we are asking for fair representation and a seat at the table,” said registered nurse Hannah Sieracki, who worked in the Intensive Care Unit during the pandemic, in a statement. “We look forward to our election knowing that this is a step towards a more just workplace for all of us.”

The election is scheduled for Oct. 17, 2023. The Montana Nurses Association currently represents more than 3,000 nurses in the Treasure State.