Veterinary Professionals Join Union, Strike, Court Date Set for July 2005

A Philadelphia lawsuit involving a veterinary clinic, local union and the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has sparked concern from veterinary professionals about union involvement in veterinary practice. The issue dates back to April 2004, when employees at an emergency hospital expressed interest in unionizing, and will culminate in a court date set for July 20, 2005, which will determine whether the hospital in Whitehall, Penn., violated fair labor practices set by the National Labor Relations Act. The court date also will determine whether the parties ratified – both parties signed – the tentative bargaining agreement. Aside from a sprinkling of private clinics, universities and research settings, unions have not had a significant presence in veterinary medicine to date and some professionals worry that union involvement will negatively impact the industry by raising client prices to pay for higher wages. Others believe that clinics can prevent widespread union membership by listening to employees and responding to their needs.

“If we as a profession get educated and discuss these issues openly with our employees this is not something [that is] likely to take a significant hold on our profession,” said Timothy Ireland, DVM, president of the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, who has been involved in the case. “I think this is a wake-up call for those who operate under the assumption that support staff will tolerate injustice because veterinary medicine is a calling, not just a job.”

Jody Smith, a technician at Valley Central Emergency Veterinary Hospital (VCEVH) who joined the union and went on strike, agreed. “We dont feel a union is needed for every hospital. There are hospitals that treat technicians with respect. At those hospitals I don’t see a reason for it.

Smith said that VCEVH employees tried to negotiate with hospital administrator Bart Ueberroth, MBA, and board members for a year and a half before approaching the union. From Smith’s perspective, “No one was listening,” she said. “That’s why we went to the union. This has been very frustrating for us.”

In April 2004, a majority of VCEVH technicians, receptionists and kennel workers expressed interest in joining American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 488. As a result, the NLRB hosted elections for the union in July 2004 and 16 employees signed an agreement, according to union records. On Dec. 31, 2004, 12 workers went on strike when contract negotiations broke down, and on Jan. 6, 2005, an agreement was signed, according to Local 488 officials. Ueberroth disagrees. He said that a tentative agreement was reached but not ratified. He also believes that several employees did not know what they were signing in July and that many do not want to be part of the union now. The clinic has about 40 full- and part-time employees. Several part-time employees are not included in the union’s bargaining agreement, Ueberroth said.

He suggests that veterinarians involved in union cases should quickly retain lawyers who specialize in labor negotiations. “Most businessmen do not have a clue about the legal complexities of unions,” Ueberroth said. “There is so much you need to know. An employer can easily hang himself.”

The agreement that employees signed gives Local 488 negotiating control for all workers, said Dorothy Moore-Duncan, regional director of the Philadelphia NLRB. “Even if you don’t want the union you’re still a member of that unit,” she said. “It’s a simple principle of majority rules.”

Local and national technician groups were surprised by the union news. “It’s really uncommon for technicians to join a union,” said Denise Takakjy, CVT, board member for the Veterinary Technicians and Assistants of Pennsylvania. “I’m very interested that they felt like they had to go that far to improve the working conditions.”

Takakjy does not see unions having a common presence any time soon, but added that down the line, “It may be something that a lot more technicians will consider. For the work we do we are not paid very well.”

Ireland doubts that the case will prompt more union involvement in private clinics, due to the small number of employees per clinic and the belief that most technicians are better off dealing directly with owners. “In order to operate the union has to take some of the money,” he said. “Employees will have someone to fight for them but they’ll end up with less because the union is going to take a cut.”

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