A group of registered nurses working at three clinics operated by SCL Health Medical Group in Butte and long hoping to negotiate a union contract with their employer scored a legal victory last week in federal court.
In a three-page decision announced April 6, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied SCL Health Medical Group’s petition to review a National Labor Relations Board ruling from Feb. 2020. The NLRB had found that the nurses’ employer had unlawfully refused to recognize and bargain with the RNs’ new bargaining unit and the Montana Nurses Association.
The medical group had argued that if the clinic nurses were going to organize and seek a collective bargaining agreement that they needed to expand membership to include other medical professionals — such as nurse practitioners, physician assistants, social workers and a behavioral health specialist.
At the time, in early 2019, the Montana Nurses Association contended management was trying to dilute the bargaining unit’s membership by stacking it with employees less inclined to organize.
The conflict began in January 2019 when the Montana Nurses Association filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to represent a unit of 12 registered nurses employed by the SCL Health Medical Group at three clinics in Butte.
On Feb. 14, 2019, the 12 nurses voted unanimously in a secret ballot to form a union.
The NLRB’s regional director rejected the medical group’s argument that the new bargaining unit needed to expand its membership to include other medical professionals. The board found that SCL Health Medical Group had violated the National Labor Relations Act by refusing to negotiate with the Montana Nurses Association, which was representing the nurses.
The D.C. Circuit decision last week agreed that the RNs’ interests were distinct enough from the interests of other medical professionals to merit their own bargaining unit. The court found: “While the nurses and the advanced-practice practitioners share some commonalities, the Regional Director acted within his discretion in concluding that the nurses’ interests were sufficiently distinct to outweigh the few commonalities.”
The judges hearing the case included Chief Judge Sri Srinivasan, Circuit Judge Patricia Millett and Senior Circuit Judge A. Raymond Randolph.
On Monday, Montana Nurses Association CEO Vicky Byrd celebrated the D.C. Circuit’s decision.
“We are encouraged by the outcome,” Byrd said, suggesting that the court’s decision provides confirmation of the Montana Nurses Association’s commitment to representing professional nurses in the state.
Robin Haux, the association’s labor program director, said SCL Health Medical Group had argued for expanding the union membership as a delay tactic.
“All this was was a stalling process,” Haux said.
She said the medical group could have allocated the dollars spent on attorneys to employees’ pay or benefits instead.
In a news release, the Montana Nurses Association said it is “excited to begin the collective bargaining process with these professional nurses and commend them for remaining diligent to ensure their collective voice.”
Meanwhile, Tom Moser, vice president of operations for the SCL Health Medical Group, Montana Region, issued a statement responding to the court decision.
“We have always supported and encouraged our associates to have a voice, and throughout this process, we have appreciated the open dialogue, rich conversations and many new ideas that have been shared,” Moser said. “As we evaluate the next steps, we will continue to follow the National Labor Relations Board’s established rules and due process.”