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Union no more

Article

Whitehall, PA.- An emergency hospital's employee union disbanded and back pay was awarded to those who joined a picket line against management, settling a ground-breaking case of organized labor in veterinary medicine.

WHITEHALL, PA.— An emergency hospital's employee union disbanded and back pay was awarded to those who joined a picket line against management, settling a ground-breaking case of organized labor in veterinary medicine.

Back to normal: It took nearly three years to settle veterinary medicine's first labor-relations dispute. Pictured here: Bart Ueberroth, administrator of Valley Central Emergency Veterinary Hospital in Leigh Valley, Pa., near Allentown.

Valley Central Emergency Veterinary Hospital in Leigh Valley, near Allentown, made history more than three years ago when a majority of employees voted to unionize to secure better working conditions. Issues involved tardy performance reviews, raises and vacation-time disputes.

When collective bargaining failed to resolve the issues, 12 workers agreed to strike and accused management of National Labor Relations Act violations. They argued that Valley Central refused to honor a contract agreement reached during bargaining and locked out striking employees. Hospital management countered that the agreement itself was illegal after being approved through a ratification vote by only a portion — not all — of the union employees.

After an appeal of the initial ruling — handed down by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in December 2005, in favor of the unionized employees — management and union representatives ended ongoing litigation by reaching a settlement after one day of mediation.

From secret vote to settlement

The terms: In return for Valley Central providing back pay with interest for the employees who were locked out during the strike and posting a notice outlining the payment agreement and their intent to bargain if requested, the union agreed to no longer act as the effective bargaining agent for the employees, says David Spitko, attorney for the clinic.

"Our goal was always the disenfranchisement of the union," not money, says Spitko of the settlement, which he considers a victory for Valley Central — one that is costing his client $23,000 in back pay and interest.

Valley Central has remained in charge of running the workplace, a point of contention that was a catalyst for the unionization, Spitko says. The hiring of a hospital administrator, Bart Ueberroth, took much of the day-to-day power out of the hands of employees, encouraging them to seek union backing for support, he alleges.

Lofty ideal: "Make your hospital a world-class place to work, where people in the industry will want to work," says Bart Ueberroth.

"I could be dead wrong, but it seems this entire matter had more to do with power than the day-to-day conditions of working," Spitko says.

Employees who led the strike say they weren't after workplace control, but simply wanted improved job satisfaction and compensation.

Former strikers Janna Tomecsek and Jody Smith say they are pleased that the settlement shows wrongdoing by the hospital, in that it provides wages for time locked out and picketing.

Hospitals advice on avoiding a strike

"I felt it was expected from the start. What leg did they have to stand on," says Smith, who no longer works at Valley Central, of the settlement. But the money does little else to address the inherent cause of the strike — technician treatment on the job.

"Are our raises, reviews and everything we asked for still behind? Yes. But I hope they are trying to work on it," says Tomecsek, who remains employed at Valley Central. "The reasons we went on strike are understood, but it is not really ever talked about or addressed."

Despite what she considers a lack of change, Tomecsek says she stands by her decision to protest. "If I had to do it all over again, I would, just because it left an impression. Even though the union is not in place right now, it did leave an impression on the people running the hospital, the board of directors, and maybe helped them realize that technicians deserve fair working conditions and have rights," she says. "The union is not in place, but it left people in management positions and those running hospitals thinking about what technicians do and how the field is changing. At least it sparked thought."

Union attorney Lance Gerren and union representative Evon Sutton both declined DVM Newsmagazine's requests to discuss the settlement and its impact.

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