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No union at ECH --- yet

by and

The Episcopal Church Home and the National Labor Relations Board have reached a settlement over allegations that ECH used unfair labor practices to prevent the home's 235 employees from unionizing.

            Employees at ECH initially approached 1199 SEIU Upstate because of dissatisfaction with benefits, staff turnover and shortages, lack of a clear pay scale for new and veteran employees, and other issues.

            Earlier this year, the board charged Episcopal administrators and managers with "interfering with, restraining, and coercing" pro-union employees. ECH hired well-known union-busting consultants Jackson Lewis to advise ECH management.

            Employees rejected the union by a 117 to 96 vote --- there were seven challenged ballots --- held last June.

The settlement came together last month. The terms require ECH to post a notice listing practices it will not engage in to prevent a union from forming. Among those: ECH will not "implicitly threaten" employees with reprisals or terminate or discipline employees because of pro-union activities.

            "It's the strongest posting I have seen in my 25-year career," says Bruce Popper, executive vice-president of 1199 SEIU.

            The notice must be posted in "conspicuous places" at the facility for 60 days.

            "Workers have confirmed it's up," Popper says.

            ECH must also pay former employee Regina Johnson $2,400 in lost wages. Johnson, union officials say, was fired for supporting the union. ECH must also remove from its files a disciplinary warning given to employee Fionna Robinson.

            "I think that the settlement agreement we reached was a fair way to bring that whole process to a conclusion," says ECH President and CEO Loren Ranaletta.

            The complaints made by the workers and the labor board, Ranaletta says, do not "in any way, shape, or form" represent an official position by anyone at ECH.

            "Our position is very clear. We did not do anything that violated any of the terms in the law," he says. "We would never intend to do that. I think by posting that settlement agreement, it shows certainly our strong respect for the law and what our intentions are."

            Ranaletta refused to talk about anything other than the settlement agreement, including what, if anything, ECH is doing to address the workplace concerns that caused employees to seek out the union in the first place.

The settlement, Popper says, is a symbolic victory because ECH employees ultimately did reject the union. But, he says, it often takes more than one attempt to get a successful vote. And signs are good, he says, that ECH employees will give it another shot.

            "They haven't made that decision, but there's a core group [that's] still around," he says. "They came over to the union Christmas party a couple weeks ago and were very spirited. This has really boosted their morale tremendously."

            The earliest another vote can be held is June 28, 2004, Popper says. Workers can file for the election in March.