Auburn Medical Center doctors working to unionize physicians

Virginia Stowell MD wants to start a local of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists at Multicare Auburn Medical Center, August 31.
Virginia Stowell MD wants to start a local of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists at Multicare Auburn Medical Center, August 31. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Washington State will have its first union for private physicians if doctors at MultiCare Auburn Medical Center vote this month to join the Union of American Physicians and Dentists.

Theodros Gashaw, a representative of the Oakland, California-based union, said he talked as far back as November to Washington physicians who had expressed interest in the union.

“We get inquiries from all over the country, but we were definitely getting a lot of queries from Washington in the Tacoma area,” Gashaw said.

Asked if his organization is working with Pierce County’s other major health care provider, CHI Franciscan Health, he said physicians from “a number of different systems” had contacted the union.

“Our focus right now is Multicare.” he said. “… It’s where we for now have received the most interest.”

Though the union’s efforts are focused on the Auburn hospital, Gashaw said he hopes a vote there to form a union would encourage other physicians to unionize as well.

In seeking a union, some of the 170 physicians at Auburn Medical Center have formed a bargaining unit and filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board.

Preliminary negotiations are covering such issues as which employees would be eligible to join the union and sent a ballot to vote on whether to start up a chapter.

Mail-in voting is to take place starting Wednesday (Sept. 28), with the result determined in two weeks, Gashaw said.

Virginia Stowell, a general surgeon at Multicare who has been part of the unionization efforts, said that if a union is formed, potential issues for negotiations include:

▪ More autonomy in directing patient care.

▪ Negotiating wages, benefits and working conditions.

▪ Forming a well-defined grievance process.

▪ Ending the practice of being fired without cause.

▪ Establishing guarantees that jobs will not be outsourced.

▪ Receiving paid sick leave and paid vacations.

“Staffing and patient care are absolutely the priorities,” said Stowell, 56, who has worked at Multicare since 2012 and in a private practice for 16 years before that. “Obviously, we still have some concerns about the budget cuts and how they’ve impacted cuts to the physician’s total compensation plan as well.”

Multicare doesn’t believe a union is needed or productive and has urged doctors to vote against unionizing, said Marce Edwards, media and digital communications director at the health care provider.

In an emailed statement issued by Edwards, Multicare stated the “happiness and well-being” its employees are priorities, and that “we work hard to listen to and collaborate with our employees. …

“However, we recognize that employees have the right to form or join a union and will honor the decision they make on that issue. We encourage all potential members of this union to vote their conscience when casting their ballot in the coming weeks.”

As for THE issue of doctors’ pay, Multicare said it reviews physician compensation each year to make sure salaries are competitive, said Roxanne Cooke, senior media relations coordinator at Multicare.

“If individual physicians have concerns about their compensation, we encourage them to share those concerns with us directly,” she said.

Stowell said a run-in she had with Multicare last year convinced her a union was needed.

She said that after Multicare made administrative changes that affected physician benefits, she sent an email to other doctors, asking if they wanted to discuss the changes and approach the administration about them.

That same morning, she said, she received an email from the administration, calling her email “subversive conduct” and stating that discussing the changes with other employees violated Multicare’s “governance structure” and “privacy practices.”

Stowell filed two cases with the NLRB, one about the email from Multicare and another about it blocking employees from emailing her personal address. She won both cases, with the NLRB ruling that instructing employees to refrain from discussions about wages and working conditions violated the National Labor Relations Act, which protects such activities.

The incident, she said, showed her that doctors throughout the Multicare system need a union if they are to have a voice when Multicare makes decisions about wages and work conditions.

Neil Partain, a hospitalist at the Auburn hospital, agreed that a union seems potentially the most effective option for becoming part of Multicare administrative decisions.

“We’ve slowly learned that if we want to stay relevant with how patients are taken care of and the decisions that are made within the organization, we have to be able to come together as one voice and be heard by the company,” said Partain, who has been with Multicare for three years.

Multicare has several ways, including a formal grievance process and an employee hot line, for employees to share their concerns, Cooke said.

“We take all concerns seriously and work with our employees to resolve issues,” she said.

Stowell said the methods are insufficient.

“There are numerous committees in the hospital that physicians are tasked to belong to, but truly, when the administration has a plan that they want to enact, the members on the committees have little or no say in opposing a direction that’s already been set by the management,” she said.

Staff writer Kenny Ocker contributed to this report.