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St. James in Butte

St. James Healthcare is pictured at 400 South Clark St. in Butte.

The National Labor Relations Board heard arguments on Friday from representatives of a small group of registered nurses at St. James Rocky Mountain Clinic seeking to unionize as well as from hospital administrators who say they need to expand the scope of their proposed collective bargaining unit before they proceed, according to Robin Haux, labor program director for the Montana Nurses Association.

The association collectively bargains on behalf of all non-supervisory registered nurses at St. James Healthcare and is behind the effort to organize the clinic's nurses.

According to Haux, the association filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board shortly after the new year to form a new bargaining unit comprised of the clinic's RNs.

In response, she says, SCL Health Associates, the faith-based nonprofit healthcare organization that operates Butte's hospital and the Rocky Mountain Clinic, claimed that the nurses would “not be an appropriate bargaining unit” and pushed for union organizers "to add some other employee groups" such as nurse practitioners to the bargaining unit.

According to Haux, she and the Montana Nurses Association recognize "that the work that all these groups do is super important" but that there is not what the National Labor Relations Board would term a "community of interest" between the RNs and the other clinic employees.

And by pushing the Montana Nurses Association to unionize more people, Haux believes management is "trying to dilute" the bargaining unit with groups that are less likely to vote to organize. That, she says, will "make it harder" for the association to successfully unionize the clinic's nurses.

On Friday, the two sides met at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Library for a hearing with the National Labor Relations Board on the dispute.

While nothing was immediately decided, according to Haux, she said she expects the board to make a decision about whether the registered nurses can form a bargaining unit of their own within about two weeks.

In an emailed statement, Tanner Gooch, communications manager for St. James Healthcare, wrote, "We respect our associate's rights to make choices regarding unionization, along with all federal and state regulations regarding this type of decision. The hearing with the National Labor Relations Board is part of the decision-making process."

Gooch declined to comment further about the nurses' effort to form a collective bargaining unit.

According to Haux, the hospital's tactic, as she described it, is one she has encountered before in her work as a labor organizer and one that did not surprise her, despite the fact that it leaves her group pushing back against management's effort to allow a greater number of workers to join a collective bargaining unit.

Ultimately, Haux said Friday, “We want all of them (the clinic's workers) to be unionized. We just want to be sure they're in the right bargaining units. We love it when people unionize.”

According to Haux, the clinic's nurses reached out the Montana Nurses Association about organizing over concerns about reductions in benefits and about the recruitment and retention of nursing staff. Another motivating factor, she said, is that the nurses in the rest of St. James are unionized and receive better accrued benefits than the clinic's non-union nursing staff.

And whatever ruling comes down from the National Labor Relations Board about the scope of the new bargaining unit, Haux says the Montana Nurses Association has options about how to organize workers at Rocky Mountain Clinic.

“To us, right now, whichever decision we get, we have a plan," Haux said. "So I’m not worried.”

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