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Workers at USC University Hospital to vote on whether to organize

May 24, 2010 |  3:50 pm

Culminating a fierce election battle, about 700 workers at USC University Hospital in Los Angeles are scheduled to vote this week on whether to join a new union in a bitter campaign that has highlighted a deep rift in the labor movement.

USC has been accused of harassing union backers and coercing employees to vote against the union. The university declined to respond directly to the allegations, instead issuing a statement saying “USC values the right of employees to choose union representation.”

The workers casting ballots will face two choices: forgo union representation or affiliate with the National Union of Healthcare Workers. The NUHW  is challenging the dominance of the giant Service Employees International Union at hospitals and nursing homes throughout California.

The NUHW, which broke from the SEIU last year, calls the SEIU autocratic and nonresponsive to members — contentions rejected  by SEIU officials, who say the rival group’s leaders were removed last year for financial impropriety and mismanagement.

Last week, the  SEIU abruptly dropped out of the race against NUHW. That means the SEIU “disclaimed any interest in representing USC hospital employees,” USC said.

NUHW maintains that the SEIU dropped out because it faced certain defeat to its rival. But Adriana Surfas, an SEIU spokeswoman, blamed hospital intimidation.

“Management created an extremely hostile environment, so that workers who supported unionization feared what was going to happen,” Surfas said.

Nonetheless, the NUHW opted to stay in the race. Its supporters accused the SEIU of working in collusion with management to defeat the breakaway union and leave the workers with no collective-bargaining representation. According to NUHW, SEIU officials have informed at least two employees that it would be better to reject union representation  than to vote for the rival group.

“SEIU and the hospital management are scheming and plotting together for people to vote no union,” said an NUHW supporter, Michael Torres, a respiratory therapist at USC University Hospital. “We don’t know the difference between SEIU and management anymore.”

Surfas, the SEIU spokeswoman, denied any SEIU-management  collaboration and harshly criticized Mitchell Creem, the hospital’s chief executive.

“There has been an intense anti-worker campaign by management,”  Surfas said.

Some students and faculty members have publicly criticized USC’s actions, writing letters, distributing  leaflets and forming delegations on behalf of employees.

“Workers should have the right to organize as they see fit without undue management influence,” said Laura Pulido, a USC professor of American studies and ethnicity.

NUHW alleges that two of its supporters, including Torres, were illegally suspended from their jobs because of pro-union activity. USC declined to comment directly on the allegations, said a spokeswoman, Meghan Lewit.

USC hired  the Weissman Group, an Ohio-based based consulting organization, “to help managers avoid inadvertently violating any labor laws,” according to the USC statement. Labor advocates call Weissman a well-known union-busting outfit. On its website, the Weissman Group cites “union avoidance consulting and strategy” as one of its services.

The 700 affected workers, including surgical technicians, physical therapists, pharmacists and other staff members, are scheduled to vote Wednesday and Thursday in a secret-ballot election at the hospital.

The National Labor Relations Board will conduct the vote and plans to count the ballots late Thursday.

Earlier this month, in a separate ballot, a unit representing 65 dietary workers at the hospital voted to join NUHW.

The 411-bed USC University Hospital is situated on USC’s Health Sciences Campus northeast of downtown Los Angeles. USC purchased the facility and the nearby USC Norris Cancer Hospital last year from Tenet Healthcare Corp. for $275 million.

-- Patrick McDonnell