Animal hospital employee union ratifies its first contract

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All Creatures Animal Hospital (ACAH), a small animal and exotic practice in Bremerton, Washington, holds the distinction of being only the second animal hospital in the United States where the employees have unionized. Their union, the ACAH Alliance, recently ratified its first contract with their corporate owner after a two-year negotiation.

The challenges of unionizing

Liz Hughston, RVT, VTS, (SAIM) (ECC), president of the National Veterinary Professionals Union, was involved in the contract negotiation and commented on how difficult it can be to unionize.

“All of the work has to be done internally,” she said. There have to be a lot of grassroots efforts and conversations with coworkers. Another hospital where the employees tried to unionize was shut down completely by their corporate owner to prevent unionization.

And the results are often not achieved quickly.

When asked why it took two years to ratify a contract, Hughston said scheduling challenges and the fact that no decisions were made at the bargaining table were factors. This meant a lot of back and forth between the two parties. Some employees left the clinic before the negotiation could be completed.

Why employees chose to unionize

What was it about this clinic that made most of the employees willing to endure two years of contract negotiations?

Hughston said it came down to some very loyal employees who love their team, the veterinarian who originally started the practice, and the clients and patients they serve. Two veterinarians and 23 staff members work at the clinic seeing companion animal and exotic species, and most of them didn’t want to leave.

At the same time, changes needed to be made. ACAH was purchased by Cara Veterinary Corporation, and prior to unionization, the employees did not find the corporation to be responsive to their requests for changes or accommodations.

Through the negotiation of their union contract, employees were able to obtain additional paid time-off benefits based on seniority. They also successfully negotiated for better temperature control inside the aging building, air purifiers to improve air quality from frequent wildfires, and safety upgrades such as security cameras outside the building.

Another win was the institution of an abusive client policy, which saves front desk workers from having to enforce good client behavior and ensures management steps in to enact behavior expectations that protect the staff.

When asked if wages were adjusted as part of the negotiations, Hughston said the hospital is “on a path to getting more folks to a living wage.”

This includes more wage transparency, something that not many veterinary personnel currently experience. While it can feel uncomfortable to know exactly how much everyone else in the hospital earns, this transparency also clearly outlines the steps an employee must take to qualify for a wage increase.

The future of unionization in vet med

Hughston anticipates that unionization will become more common among veterinary clinic employees in the future, and as this case shows, it is not limited to large hospitals with hundreds of staff members.

“It’s important to know that people do this because they love their workplace, not because they hate it or anyone,” Hughston said. Seeing increasing prices and how this affects clients, and not seeing wages rise with those prices, are big drivers for employees to unionize.

For employers who would rather avoid negotiating with their employees through a union, Hughston has this advice:

“Make sure your pay makes sense. Listen to your workers. Create lines of communication that are clear and direct so that you can address issues when they happen. Otherwise, people are going to organize,” she cautions. “People want to be heard.”

Further reading

All Creatures Animal Hospital website

National Veterinary Professionals Union

Emily Singler, VMD, is AAHA's veterinary content strategist.

Photo credit: © Nazan Akpolat E+ via Getty Images Plus

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.


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