Union backers take to the streets

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By David Giuliani

More than 50 protesters on Thursday took a message to the front doors of the hospital: “Negotiate now.”

The group, which included Alta Vista Regional Hospital employees, demonstrated starting at 11 a.m. at all four corners of Las Vegas’ busiest intersection — Seventh Street and Mills Avenue.

Many of the cars passing by honked their horns in support throughout the lunch hour. Many demonstrators held yellow union flags; others waved signs with messages such as “People before profits” and “Appreciate-negotiate.”

They were demonstrating against Alta Vista’s continued refusal to negotiate with District 1199 of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, a branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Among the groups participating were the union itself, Highlands University Students for Peace, the Concerned Citizens Committee and Amnesty International. The one elected official protesting was City Councilwoman Diane Moore.

Employees voted to be represented by the union last summer, but the hospital has fought against the decision, questioning the conduct of the election.

Thursday’s demonstration was the biggest public display against the private hospital’s management since the unionization effort began last spring.

Around 1 p.m., most of the protesters drove to Alta Vista and demonstrated for a few minutes on the sidewalk on Legion Drive, next to the hospital’s only entrance.

Fighting a fierce wind, a few urged the others to get closer to the hospital building. Local activist Pat Leahan got on her loudspeaker and announced the plan.

The demonstrators formed a long line and marched toward Alta Vista, which is private property.

A security guard exited the building and approached the group. He told the marchers they were trespassing. The group proceeded anyway. A couple of employees taking a break waved in support.

The protesters got near the front doors and looped around. Then they went back to Legion, singing “Solidarity Forever.” By that time, four security guards were on hand watching the group.

No police showed up, although a hospital spokesman later said they were called.

In March, the National Labor Relations Board rejected Alta Vista’s appeal of the election. Soon afterward, Richard Grogan, the hospital’s CEO, informed employees by memo that Alta Vista planned to appeal the matter in federal court.

Mathew Martinez, the hospital’s spokesman, said in a statement Thursday that the National Labor Relations Act forces Alta Vista to refuse to bargain so it can obtain a court review.

“As we have stated previously, the hospital continues to disagree with the conduct of the election that occurred last year,” he said.

Martinez said security guards asked the protesters to leave for the safety of patients and visitors.

“When they did not leave the parking lot, we contacted local police to assist in securing the safe and unobstructed access to and use of hospital property,” he said.

An officer arrived later, but it was after most protesters had left the area.

In last summer’s election, nearly two-thirds of hospital employees voted for the union, even though Alta Vista waged an aggressive campaign against it.

Alta Vista has long maintained that a union would create discord at the hospital and that employees could deal directly with their superiors without a third-party organization.

In its objections to the election, Alta Vista, owned by Brentwood, Tenn.-based Community Health Systems, contends that professional and nonprofessional employees should not be in a combined unit. However, NLRB stated that it found no merit in the hospital’s argument because the matter had already been addressed.

The hospital also raised procedural issues, alleging that the election started a minute late and that a few Spanish-speaking employees didn’t understand what they were voting on.

Hospital employees demonstrating Thursday weren’t buying it.

Regina Gutierrez, a registered nurse, waved her sign energetically at passing motorists, especially at those who were honking their horns. She was with a couple of other nurses.

“We need a show of support from the community,” she said. “They (administration) are refusing to acknowledge us, let alone negotiate.”

Most of the Alta Vista employees demonstrating were nurses. That’s because nurses aren’t facing as much pressure from administration as other groups of employees, Gutierrez said.

“We are in a position to be (other employees’) voice as well as our own,” she said.

Laura Robinson was among a number of union employees from St. Vincent Regional Medical Center taking part in the demonstration. She is a registered nurse at the Santa Fe hospital but lives in Las Vegas.

She said she did some of her nursing training at Alta Vista, but she didn’t like the conditions, so she chose to make the commute to the City Different.

“There are a lot of people from Las Vegas who work at St. Vincent because the union and the hospital get along, and there are better working conditions,” she said.

Henry Santana, a professional organizer with the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, said CEO Grogan has refused to answer phone calls from the union.

“They’re losing on all grounds,” he said.