Union process explained as KRH heads into vote

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The main entrance to Kalispell Regional Medical Center. (Matt Baldwin/Daily Inter Lake)

As 650 nurses with Kalispell Regional Medical Center, HealthCenter and Brendan House prepare to cast their votes during a two-day union election this week, both hospital and union officials are campaigning for the majority vote and working to explain the unionization process.

Officials with Kalispell Regional recently launched a website, KRHunionfacts.com, in an attempt to dovetail concerns expressed by hospital staff into an online question-and-answer format. The website delves into collective bargaining and the bargaining unit, union dues, the voting process, union dues and more.

Hospital officials have announced their opposition to unionization, with new Chief Executive Officer Craig Lambrecht saying in a recent interview the shift most likely would come at the expense of the hospital’s independence. Meanwhile, the union representing those pushing for organized labor — Service Employees International Union 1199NW — has launched campaign efforts that are expected to continue until the first day of the election on July 11.

In the midst of the campaign, both the union and the employer are expected to adhere to rules and regulations set forth by the National Labor Relations Board.

“With these campaigns you have the intersection of the employees’ rights under federal law to say ‘we do or don’t like this idea’ and then their rights to make a choice about the union. Then you have the union and the employer’s rights to engage in free speech and speak with employees,” said Karl Englund, a Missoula attorney who specializes in employment and labor law.

According to Englund, the long list of campaign guidelines are complicated at best, but this is the gist: both the union and the employer are not allowed to make promises or threats regarding the potential outcome of the election, nor can they misrepresent the campaign process as set forth by Labor Relations. For example, hospital officials and the union can voice their opinions on why they do or do not believe the union is a good fit for Kalispell Regional, but are not allowed to promise pay raises or various other benefits in exchange for votes. In addition, neither side can place one’s job security on the line based on how they vote.

However, Englund said when both sides describe their perspectives, the verbage can sometimes blur the line of what is considered a threat versus what is considered an opinion.

“For example, someone can say ‘we really don’t think this would benefit our hospital’ or ‘voting this way will take away your rights.’ So when does that kind of thing sound like a threat more than an opinion? It opens the door for gray area,” Englund said.

Englund also said common critiques of the campaign rules are that the employer has a leg up during the campaign due to having constant access to employees, but also that hospitals have stricter guidelines. But he said for the most part, the “playing field is level” and campaign efforts are often widespread by both sides.

Beginning July 11, officials with the National Labor Relations Board will conduct the “secret ballot election,” meaning no one besides the board will know whether someone voted for or against the union.

According to the Kalispell Regional Healthcare website, the union claims it will have a “super-majority vote” in favor of unionization. Englund said while this may be true, there isn’t a measuring system in place to accurately make that determination. He said a union election takes place when a “showing of interest” is expressed in which about 30 percent of the total bargaining unit says they want an election.

“From a practical standpoint, if the union has the cards [signed by nurses], it may have a decent sense of where the election stands,” Englund said. “But there is no for-sure way to gauge the outcome.”

That outcome will be determined by a majority vote; however, the entirety of the voting body does not have to cast its votes. For example, if only 100 of the voters show up and 51 vote in favor of a union, the hospital will still be union certified. And since Montana is not a right-to-work state, the nurses must support the union and pay union dues on a regular basis, regardless of his or her desire to do so.

Englund said for an allotted period of time, about one year, those that voted are presumed to have majority status. But after that time period, the employer can say the body that voted no longer represents the majority of the hospital or the bargaining unit and can file for a decertification.

“Practically everything that has to do with NLRB is always subject to be revisited. That includes a union certification,” Englund explained.

The Kalispell Regional website says the process, however, is not an easy one and the hospital is unable to assist in the efforts. Officials with both the union and the hospital have declared it critical that all those who are eligible to vote, do so.

If the vote turns up in favor of the union, the employer, the union and Labor Relations must settle on terms of the collective bargaining agreement. When the agreement is formed, the employer and the union sit down at a table and negotiate wages, benefits and other terms of employment, and often, the giving of one request can come at the expense of another.

The parties are required to bargain in “good faith,” but neither side is required to agree to a specific proposal, which can often lead to an extension in the bargaining process. Furthermore, Englund said a collective bargaining agreement can take a long time to establish.

“A common misconception is that the vote will go through and all of the union benefits will fall into place,” Englund said. “It can take a long time to get a collective bargaining agreement. Sometimes employers will drag their feet.”

Englund said he could not speak to whether he believes a union would be best for Kalispell Regional, but said in many cases with hospitals, unions are proven to “work and work well.” But as with any shift in a health-care environment, adjusting to change takes time.

The Daily Inter Lake recently posted on social media, asking hospital employees to call and express their opinions regarding unionization. Reporters only heard from five employees as of Wednesday morning. Based on those conversations and others with leaders at the hospital and the union, the two sides appear polarized.

Those against unionization have said, among many other things, there is little to be desired from working in an organized labor environment and they do not believe union representation can adequately bargain for what would benefit the nursing body as a whole. Most say they do not believe Lambrecht, who has been with Kalispell Regional for about two months, has been given a fair shake in his leadership role and needs more time for his vision to come to fruition. Those in opposition have also said there could be other options to have nurses’ opinions be better heard, such as establishing a leadership council of sorts.

However, some in the other camp say a union is long overdue, especially in light of the hospital’s $24 million whistleblower lawsuit settlement from 2018 and other occurrences that have created a rift between executive leadership and employees. Among other points, some say staff are being overworked, which leads to higher turnover — an occurrence that can impact patient care, but they believe it can be helped with a union. They say Kalispell Regional can maintain its independence while also having a union, insisting they simply want a “seat at the table.”

Both sides say their desired outcome would benefit the community as a whole and lead to better patient care.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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