Previously Suspended NLRB Official Forces Workers into SEIU

Hospital staffers ask agency to overturn decision to absorb them into union without an election

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A regional labor arbiter previously suspended for fundraising with labor unions is forcing Pennsylvania hospital workers to join a union, sparking protest from a group of employees.

Dennis Walsh, the regional director for the National Labor Relations Board's fourth district, approved a request to roll 160 non-union nurses, technical workers, and other employees at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Schuylkill East into Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania, which represents workers at the Lehigh Valley Hospital-Schuylkill South.

The SEIU asked the agency to declare all workers at the non-union facility to be unionized after the hospital network allowed union employees to transfer there. Walsh used the doctrine of accretion in which non-union employees bearing "little or no separate group identity" from a company's unionized workforce are absorbed into a union without a traditional secret ballot election or card-check campaign.

"South and East are one ‘combined hospital' rather than two distinct entities. … The high degree of employee interchange between the two facilities and the widespread use of common supervisors for South and East point forcibly to the conclusion," Walsh ruled.

Workers at the East facility have now filed a motion to the NLRB asking it to overturn Walsh's decision. The workers say they rejected a 2016 overture from the union to organize the workplace, according to the motion by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation on behalf of a group of employees.

Respiratory therapist Christine Weidensaul, who has worked at the facility for 34 years, complained of harassment during the union's campaign, pointing to three visits to her home from SEIU organizers. Weidensaul said the officials ignored her requests to leave her home.

"They stood in my doorway despite my attempts to get them off my property," she said in the motion. "I believe SEIU's organizing attempt at East hospital in the Spring/Summer of 2016 was unsuccessful, which is why, to my knowledge, SEIU never filed for an election with the NLRB."

A radiographer who belonged to the union for 22 years said in his petition that he left the South facility for the East in part to cut ties with the union. Joseph Rittle said he soured on union membership after SEIU orchestrated three strikes during his tenure. He asked the agency to hold a secret ballot election, rather than unilaterally forcing him and his coworkers to join the bargaining unit.

"I left South at some cost to move to a non-union position at East," he said in a declaration to the NLRB. "I feel no need for SEIU representation, because I feel that the employees at East have very good working conditions, and had no need for any union representation."

SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania did not respond to request for comment.

While the NLRB has long accepted accretion as a means of achieving union membership, it sets a high bar for employing the doctrine "because it [forecloses] the employee's basic right to select their bargaining representative," according to the NLRB Outline of Law and Procedure in Representation Cases. The hospital network argued that the union forfeited its right to use accretion after it signed an agreement with SEIU about the integration process between the two facilities.

"[SEIU] agreed to specific exclusion of East employees from the bargaining unit, and [the Petitioner] therefore cannot use unit clarification to accrete East employee," it said in a brief.

Walsh rejected this argument, saying the agreement was "ambiguous" and applied only to the voluntary recognition of the employees as union members, while leaving open the possibility the union could petition the board to make such a decision.

"An employer cannot use the fact that it has refused to accrete employees into the unit as evidence that the employees have not accreted into the unit," the ruling says.

The motion said Walsh's decision could only be read as a boost to the union, saying "No party, save the Union, is better served" by accretion.

"East employees are not better served by having their freedom to choose their representative stripped from them," the motion says. "The Employer is obviously not better served—if it were, it would not be vigorously opposing the Union's attempts to accrete the East employees."

Walsh has previously been sanctioned for his relationship with organized labor. In 2015, the agency suspended him for 30 days without pay after an inspector general found he misled investigators about his role at a charity that collected contributions from union officers.

Nearly 60 percent of Region 4's casework "involved at least one prohibited source who made a contribution to the Peggy Browning Fund" where Walsh served as chairman and was an active participant in fundraising events and used his government email account to conduct business for the nonprofit.

A Lehigh Valley Health Network spokesman declined to comment on Walsh's decision, as well as the motion to block unionization.