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Union prevails in landmark decision

Article

Philadelphia —Valley Central Emergency Veterinary Hospital plans to fight a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that favors the unionization of its staff and orders the practice to pay employees thousands in back pay and interest.

PHILADELPHIA —Valley Central Emergency Veterinary Hospital plans to fight a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that favors the unionization of its staff and orders the practice to pay employees thousands in back pay and interest.

Legal remedy

If the decision's upheld, Valley Central could rank the nation's first practice to successfully unionize and penalized for resisting organized labor. Labor attorneys appear willing to defend the ruling as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.

In an appeal filed at presstime, attorney David Spitko disputes NLRB Administrative Law Judge Richard A. Scully's December ruling that finds the Whitehall, Penn., practice guilty of unfair labor practices. The decision backs staff's right to organize and chastises the practice's administrators for locking out at least 10 employees following a 2004 strike prompted by a botched bargaining agreement.

According to the appeal, Spitko, who did not return DVM Newsmagazine phone calls seeking comment, refutes all aspects of the judgment, which finds Valley Central guilty of violating the National Labor Relations Act by refusing to execute a contract with the union, implement terms of the agreement and locking out employees in support of an "unlawful bargaining position." In addition, the decision finds practice officials at fault for failing to provide the union relevant information in a timely manner, locking out employees on a discriminatory basis, requiring locked out employees to make unconditional offers to return to work and telling returning strikers they could not engage in union activities while at work and would be fired if they engaged in a strike.

Now Valley Central must effectuate policies of the National Labor Relations Act, the decision states. That includes an order to reimburse employees who suffered lost wages or benefits as a result of the practice's refusal to abide by its union contract, plus interest. It also forces the practice to publicly post its willingness to work with the union in a formal "notice to employees" (see sidebar).

Hospital Administrator Bart Ueberroth blames the decision on judicial bias. "We fully expected to be unsuccessful at this level," he says in a Jan. 3 e-mail to DVM Newsmagazine. "It was a very lazy ruling. ... Our best chance of success will lie with a union-neutral judge in the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals."

Repayment order

That means appealing the ruling one level beyond where the case sits right now. Convinced of his case's legitimacy, NLRB attorney Lance Geren says he doesn't know why Valley Central "keeps wasting its money." He suggests Valley Central officials stop trying to fight the union and instead, work with it.

"At this point the remedy is that the contract is effective," he says. "They still have a bargaining obligation with us. It expired in January, so the problem is we need to sit down and negotiate. Still, I'm doubtful they'll even meet with us."

While payouts haven't been tallied, Geren confirms it's a "substantial amount." Former employee and union supporter Jody Smith was out of work five months following the December 2004 strike that resulted in an employee lockout. The veterinary technician knows it won't happen overnight, but she expects a "big check" to appear in the mail.

"They were found guilty of every single charge," she says. "That means they have to repay us and make us contractually whole from our ratification until now. We're entitled to our raises, our holiday pay. They have to figure out what they owe us, and that's going to take a little bit of time."

Geren predicts the appeals process will make it tough to force Valley Central to soon settle what the employees are owed, although the judge had ordered the practice to submit payroll, Social Security payment and personnel records as well as timecards and any other pertinent reports necessary to analyze the amount of back pay due.

Time of change

Despite the wait, Smith says she feels vindicated. Employees did not organize solely based on pay but because the hospital allegedly lacked proper equipment, oversight and client services. With Valley Central's 32 absentee DVM shareholders and seven off-site board members, management was scare, Smith says. Then Ueberroth was hired. He reportedly cut vacation time, provided small raises and was tardy on reviews. In a January 2005 interview, Ueberroth denied the allegations including reports he failed to act as a manager by addressing client complaints and staff injuries.

In April 2004, employees voted via secret ballot to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 488. Contract negotiations followed, which led to the strike (See DVM Newsmagazine's January 2005 cover article "Labor union vies for change").

In his Jan. 3 e-mail, Ueberroth claims employee morale has increased since the strike. "It is a much different place here than it was just a year ago," he writes. "Seven of the 12 strikers have either quit or been fired 'for just cause,' including the primary organizer that caused this whole mess."

Smith, the primary organizer, contends the union's involvement didn't have to take a legal route. Practice officials chose to "flex their muscles" instead of working with the union, which has proved a "big mistake," she says.

"I just want to make sure that everyone now sees that this was not just an economic issue," she says. "This is something that we really believed in. There is strength in numbers."

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