US appeals court upholds Massachusetts hospital system's union-free hiring policy

A U.S. appeals court is backing New Bedford, Mass.-based Southcoast Health System's policy giving hiring preferences to union-free employees, reports Reuters.

The case stems from a complaint filed in 2011 against Southcoast over its policy that grants union-free employees a hiring preference for union-free positions. The policy, which was written in the late 1990s, applies to all three Southcoast hospitals — Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River, Mass., St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford and Tobey Hospital in Wareham, Mass.

Tobey Hospital is the only Southcoast hospital to have a unionized workforce, and workers there are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association and 1199 Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers East. 1199SEIU also represents employees in the Southcoast Visiting Nurse Association.

In 2011, 1199SEIU challenged Southcoast's union-free hiring policy, contending it discriminates against union members in violation of the National Labor Relations Act, according to an opinion issued Friday from a three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

According to the opinion, 1199SEIU's collective bargaining agreement for Tobey Hospital workers allows union members a hiring preference when filling union positions, and Southcoast's union-free hiring policy is "an effort to produce more even-handed hiring practices across its three hospitals."

The NLRB previously determined the policy was invalid because it "was not supported by a legitimate and substantial business justification." However, the appeals court on Friday vacated the board's order.

The appeals court said Southcoast Health's policy was valid because union employees were considered exclusively for other jobs, per a previously negotiated labor deal, according to Reuters.

In response to the opinion, David DeJesus Jr., senior vice president of human resources at Southcoast Health, said: "It's a matter of basic fairness. If people are restricted from applying to a job represented by a union in our healthcare system, then it should be reciprocal."

The union, on the other hand, expressed disappointment in the opinion.

"We are disappointed that the 1st Circuit did not adopt the board's ruling, which found that under clear federal labor law a non-union employer cannot discriminate against an employee because of her union status or support. It is decisions such as this which interpret the National Labor Relations Act so as to weaken the power and the voices of working people, and which ultimately contribute to wage inequality," Tyrék Lee Sr., executive vice president of 1199SEIU, said in a statement.

 

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