Labor Intensive 

As the Bitterroot grows, so does the movement to unionize

Bitterroot Valley citizens may have voted overwhelmingly Republican in November’s election, but at the same time many of them were also forming labor unions.

In 2000, three large employers saw their workers form—or attempt to form—labor unions. Two of those employers, Donaldson Brothers Ready-Mix and Alpine Log Homes, responded by reportedly harassing and intimidating pro-union workers. Those unions have yet to be certified by election.

But just last week, the registered nurses at Hamilton’s Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital realized their long-time union plans when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified them as a collective bargaining unit.

That workers are unionizing in a county where virtually any job is considered more a privilege than a necessity, is, perhaps, not so surprising.

The issues that prompted the three groups of employees—nurses, concrete laborers and log home builders—to seek union representation differ markedly.

At Marcus Daly Hospital, the nurses’ concerns are for patient care, according to Montana Nurses Association representative Todd Thun and R.N. Norma Severson. And patient care is tied to the right of nurses to have a say in hospital policy and procedures, something they felt was lacking.

“It really comes down to what degree of autonomy you have in the workplace, and the influence to bring up problems,” says Thun.

Severson, who is president of the nurses’ bargaining unit, agrees. There is currently a nationwide nursing shortage, she says, which puts Marcus Daly Hospital in the position of having to compete for skilled nurses against larger hospitals with unionized work forces. “Marcus Daly nurses didn’t identify wages as an issue,” Severson says, adding that wages had an indirect impact when nurses opted to unionize.

“In general, wages have never been the issue that gets nurses to [unionize],” she says. “Nurses are interested in patient care primarily.” And patient care suffers when nurses believe they are being micro-managed and not allowed to participate in policies that affect them directly, such as lay-off decisions and the awarding of positions.

The nurses’ success came about a decade after a first attempt to unionize, and may have inspired their non-nursing colleagues to join a union as well. Timm Twardowski, a representative for the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees union, says about 300 other employees at Marcus Daly are considering unionizing as well, and for the same reason: the housekeepers, janitors, lab technicians, clerical staff and Certified Nursing Assistants “just didn’t feel like they have a voice at work.”

Interest in the union is strong, and though he believes an election will eventually be held, he’s vague about the details, saying, “there’s intimidation going on. Some of the workers are scared to death.”

Intimidation of pro-union workers also hampered attempts by employees of Donaldson Brothers Ready-Mix in Hamilton and Alpine Log Homes in Victor to form unions of their own.

Last spring, pro-union employees at Donaldson Brothers convinced 26 of 28 of their co-workers to sign union cards. That’s when the harassment and intimidation started, says Eldon Wolfe, a seven-year employee of the company. For the concrete workers, the issues that prompted unionization efforts were wages and the management of their employee stock option plan. Wolfe says the employees contributed to the plan but had no say in the direction of that plan.

In June, workers and their spouses staged a one-day strike to get the attention of the NLRB. The following day, returning employees were “locked out” of the workplace and replaced by new hires, says Wolfe.

The workers eventually won a court hearing before an NLRB administrative judge, but the hearing wasn’t held until October. By then, he says, intimidation tactics had been successful and union efforts had fizzled. Wolfe, who was laid off before Christmas for the first time in his employment with Donaldson Brothers, blames company owner Charles Donaldson for six months of worker harassment that led to a split decision by the NLRB in a December ruling.

“The intimidation was successful,” he says. “Some of them pulled their cards. Some changed their jobs. They didn’t want to fight Charles every day.”

Donaldson denies intimidating his employees. “I probably would say absolutely not,” he says, but the NLRB found the workers had indeed been intimidated. It ordered the company to pay back wages to locked-out employees and to post a notice alerting the workers to their right to unionize, and prohibiting management from surveilling, interrogating and threatening employees who attempt to unionize.

The union was not certified, but that won’t stop union efforts, supporters say. “Now we have to continue to get stronger,” says Wolfe. Both sides may appeal the ruling, but neither side has made a decision to appeal.

At Alpine, where the issue was low wages, union organizers Lennie Thompson and Steve Lehman faced opposition not only from company management, but from fellow employees who voiced a common and long-held view in the Bitterroot Valley: “We want to live here, so we have to suck it up.”

Both lost days of work for their efforts at unionizing. “I was not allowed to work two days because I would not sign a contract saying I would not hand out union literature,” Thompson says.

Alpine workers filed a complaint against Alpine with the NLRB, citing intimidation and harassment of workers. A year ago, the NLRB found in favor of the workers and ordered the company to post a union notice, like the one ordered for Donaldson Brothers, and ordered Alpine to pay back wages to Thompson and Lehman, neither of whom work for Alpine anymore.

The company appealed, and a decision is still pending, according to a spokesman for the NLRB in Seattle.

The long waiting game is what can doom a fledgling union, say pro-organization workers like Thompson and Wolfe. “The hearings take so long, and it’s to the company’s benefit,” Thompson says.

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