Thursday, February 9, 2012
When Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas CEO Dr. Max Cuevas visited a rural health center in Oaxaca, he says, midwives who met him could tell simply by touching his hands that he delivers babies.
Cuevas joined Clinica in 1986 as an obstetrician and gynecologist, and he has presided over the nonprofit’s explosive growth. One of every 10 Monterey County babies is born in one of Clinica’s nine health centers, and it’s expanding its rural range from Salinas and South County north to Pajaro. Clinica leaders are also looking to open a clinic in Jalisco, Mexico, where many Monterey County farmworker families spend part of the year.
But while Clinica successfully courts a working-class constituency by providing sliding-scale medical care, Clinica’s own employees allege they’ve been intimidated as they plan to unionize.
A two-week standoff between Service Employees International Union 521 and Clinica appears to be coming to a cooperative resolution. SEIU filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board Jan. 20, the first step in requesting an election that would allow Clinica’s workers to join the union. But SEIU withdrew that petition Feb. 3.
Union organizers prefer a “card check” to an election when it comes to membership. It’s an organizing tactic that allows employees to indicate their support for a union by simply submitting a signed card. Noticed elections give employers time to dissuade workers from participating, union reps say.
“Employers don’t do card checks unless there is a lot of friendly persuasion,” says Roberto De La Cruz, California deputy director for SEIU.
That persuasion came in the form of a Jan. 25 letter, signed by 22 local elected officials and nonprofit and labor leaders, including county supervisors Fernando Armenta, Simon Salinas and Jane Parker; Salinas City Councilman Sergio Sanchez; and Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado. “It is important that you and your coworkers gain the respect that you deserve by having a voice in improving working conditions,” they wrote to Clinica employees. “We are also sending a letter to Dr. Cuevas urging him to respect your right to a union without coercion.”
De La Cruz claims a spate of firings for relatively minor offenses reflected an environment of reprisal at Clinica. One employee alleges she lost her job for failure to wear a uniform properly. “Those little things are tell-tales,” De La Cruz says. “Those are real patterns of an anti-union campaign.”
Cuevas says he hadn’t heard about the intimidation allegations prior to questions from the Weekly Jan. 30. “That’s a bad rumor,” he says. “You can’t do that; that’s against the law.”
Jesus Lopez, a Clinica board member and community worker at California Rural Legal Assistance, thinks the union-busting claims were overblown. “Knowing Dr. Cuevas, I don’t think he’d intimidate anyone,” he says.
At a special meeting Jan. 19, Clinica’s board opted for a wait-and-see approach, Lopez says, and agreed not to interfere in the election.
Meanwhile Madeline Flores, a medical assistant at the Soledad clinic, says she’s turned in her card supporting unionization. She hopes it will address her only complaint about working there, favoritism by management.
Compensation for the nonprofit’s 185 employees is its largest expense. In 2010, Clinica collected $18 million in revenue and spent upwards of $11 million on employee benefits and salaries.
De La Cruz echoes Lopez’s praise for Clinica management. “Dr. Cuevas has done a miracle in health care,” he says. “He should show that to his workers also.”