TURLOCK -- An allegation of unfair labor practices has blocked a union vote from taking place at Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock.
Shelley Coppock, assistant regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, said Thursday that the election, which had been set for next week, is canceled while the agency considers a complaint from the Serv- ice Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers West.
The union charged that administrators held mandatory staff meetings in which employees were intimidated, and told workers the hospital would close if they voted for union membership.
"They made these threats that make it impossible to have a fair election," said Steve Trossman, an SEIU spokesman. "We hope at some point we will be able to schedule the election and go forward."
Emanuel Spokeswoman Pennie Rorex called the union's allegations ludicrous. "We have followed the full intent and letter of the law at all times. And we intend to fully cooperate with the NLRB during the investigation," she said.
Some employees at the 209-bed hospital said they were concerned about recent layoffs and the negotiations over the possible merger between Emanuel and Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare Corp. About 400 unlicensed workers including aides, kitchen workers, maintenance people, technicians and respiratory therapists were eligible to vote in the election.
Nurses are not part of the group. The 1,400 employees at Emanuel are not represented by unions.
"When they laid off 24 people (Nov. 1), they did not go by seniority," said a pro-union employee, who declined to identify himself because of fear of losing his job. "If they are going to sell out to Tenet, I want to be able to protect the jobs of my fellow employees."
In 2006, the last time Emanuel employees considered union membership, they rejected joining the Turlock Emergency Medical Service Association in a 311-67 vote. But workers supporting the current proposal said that SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West is a stronger union.
Rorex said hospital management was disappointed that Tuesday's election was canceled, because "we were confident the majority of employees would have endorsed the mission and values" of Emanuel.
She confirmed that meetings with employees have been held recently. "It's our responsibility to provide our employees with facts about our hospital, our financial status and plans for the future," she said. "They deserve to have that information."
The spokeswoman said that consultants were hired to ensure the hospital complied with labor laws during the organizing and election process, but they did not intimidate workers. Some employees said the consultants made critical remarks about unions during staff meetings.
Emanuel officials say the hospital is considering a merger with Tenet because of economic realities, the costs of serving uninsured patients and changes to national health care policy.
In September, the hospital announced it was in exclusive talks with Tenet and was sharing information in a due-diligence process. A Tenet spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the negotiations and the union activity.
Rorex said that Emanuel is close to completing the negotiating process, but it has yet to reach a final agreement with Tenet. That for-profit company has 49 hospitals, including Doctors Medical Center in Modesto and Doctors Hospital of Manteca. Emanuel was furnishing additional information requested by the company, she said.
Hospital officials say they want to retain Emanuel's Christian principles along with its cardiac care and cancer treatment services if the church-owned independent hospital is purchased by Tenet.
Desiree Perez, a phlebotomist at Emanuel, said she and other employees want to keep their jobs if the hospital has new owners.
"I think some employees will be subcontracted out. Tenet has done that when they have taken over a facility that doesn't have a union," she said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 5782321.