Veterinary staff unionize at another Seattle-area clinic

Collective bargaining efforts see success and failure during the pandemic

Published: July 02, 2021
By Lisa Wogan

Photo by Anastasia Massie
Support staff at a Bremerton, Washington, veterinary hospital, which voted to unionize in June, touted the effort with face masks emblazoned, "We are unionizing." Pictured from left are: Chrissie Carattini, Anastasia Massie, Christina Hart, Melissa Woodland, Lindsay Sorenson and Alysia Simek.

For the first time in nearly three years, support staff at a veterinary hospital have formed a union. The National Labor Relations Board last week certified the 26-to-7 vote at a small animal, exotic and avian hospital located west of Seattle. 

The move by staff at All Creatures Animal Hospital in Bremerton brings to five the total number of hospitals in the U.S. whose staff have organized since the National Veterinary Professionals Union (NVPU) was established in 2017.

The NVPU, which affiliates with unions formed at the individual hospital level, seeks to organize and negotiate collectively for better wages and benefits, safer working conditions and more workplace support for veterinary technicians, assistants, client-care coordinators, reception staff and other personnel.

All Creatures is owned by Cara Veterinary, a private entity established in 2019 that owns six practices in the Seattle-Tacoma region, according to its website. Cara bought the hospital in 2020 from an independent owner-operator.

Satisfaction among union proponents over the latest hospital to organize is tempered by setbacks in collective bargaining that occurred during the pandemic. Two of the five unions — at VCA hospitals in San Francisco and Clackamas, Oregon — dissolved in December and February, respectively, after more than two years of negotiations. A third union, at a BluePearl hospital in Seattle, is entering its third year of contract talks against a backdrop of staff shortages and a recent suspension of emergency service.

VCA and BluePearl belong to Mars Inc., the largest owner of veterinary practices in the world. VCA has more than 1,000 primary care, specialty and emergency hospitals in the U.S. and Canada. BluePearl is a group of 100-plus emergency and specialist-referral hospitals in the U.S. 

In brief

Only one union, at Columbia River Veterinary Specialists in southwest Washington, has managed to ratify a contract, last August. That hospital is owned by PetVet Care Centers, a private-equity-backed consolidator with more than 330 hospitals in 37 states, according to its website

Labor organizers say the COVID-19 pandemic has helped and hurt their efforts.

"So many people want and need the help of a union, but the extreme burnout secondary to the busy-ness that everyone is dealing with makes the idea of organizing difficult for many," said NVPU president Liz Hughston. 

Even so, Hughston said the union is hearing from people every week who are looking to organize. "I believe we'll come out of the pandemic into a world where organizing looks more and more attractive to employees of corporations that didn't listen to or take care of their people during the pandemic," she said.

Young company faces industry rarity

Two staff members at All Creatures told the VIN News Service that before the sale to Cara Veterinary, the hospital had a "family-oriented atmosphere" with an open-door policy for employees looking to discuss concerns with managers.

"We understood we would be cared for by our boss," said Anastasia Massie, who has been a veterinary assistant at the hospital for six years. "That was never a question."

With the sale, Massie and Alysia Simek, a licensed veterinary technician, said things changed. Despite the new owner's promises to the contrary, Cara began cutting benefits, including paid time off and sick leave, as well as wages.

"We tried to reach out to a couple of different managers in the corporation and were brushed aside multiple times," said Simek, who has worked at the hospital for eight years.

Meeting informally after work, a group of employees found that many of them felt that they were not being heard and needed to do something.

In March, that something became starting a union. The All Creatures union is affiliated with both NVPU and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. ILWU, which primarily represents dock workers and warehouse employees on the West Coast and Hawaii, is the only established non-veterinary union currently providing legal and organizing support to veterinary workers.

For Massie, it's about more than wages and benefits — it's about accountability, she said. "It's easier for the corporation to brush off the concerns of an individual employee. They can't dismiss a group. We'll be taken seriously."

Cara Veterinary president and co-founder Dr. Peter Brown declined to answer VIN News questions about the company and the union. In an emailed statement, he confirmed the union vote and said: "We must now move forward and focus on our goal of providing great medicine for our clients and their pets in a family environment. We are committed to bargaining in good faith with ILWU."

Simek and Massie said they hope the company will see their shared interest.

"I have hopes that our owner is going to want to do what's best for us, and is truly going to want to hear us out," Simek said. "I know that he cares about making sure his clinics are run well. I know that he cares about his staff's mental health because he has mentioned he cares about it."

Since All Creatures unionized, Simek said she and her colleagues have been hearing from staff at clinics around the country, expressing the desire that they someday may be a part of something similar.

"The reality is, more and more corporations are buying clinics, and it's getting harder and harder for all of us," Simek said. "Unionizing and standing in solidarity is the only thing that is going to help protect us as individuals and employees. No matter what the outcome is, I know at this point we have been an inspiration to others."

First up, first down 

Depending on where one sits at the bargaining table, the demise of unions at two VCA clinics either illustrates the natural ebb and flow of business for a company negotiating in good faith, or it shows how a company determined to deny unions a foothold gets the job done.

In a statement provided to VIN News by VCA media relations, the company said it works hard to build a "special relationship" with its associates "that goes beyond a traditional employer/employee relationship." VCA said it provides "fair and meaningful" compensation, competitive benefits, and career development and advancement opportunities.

"Many associates speak of the hospitals where they work as closely-knit families," VCA said. "In a workplace like that, associates generally don’t feel the need to go outside the hospital to have someone else to speak for them. However, in the locations where associates are represented by a union, we bargain in good faith with the union as required by law."

Ryan Dowling, an ILWU representative who worked with the San Francisco union, disputes the idea that unions speak for workers. "The workers speak for themselves," he said. "The 'union' as an institution helps workers through the process."

The first large group of private-sector veterinary workers to organize recently in the U.S. was the support staff at VCA-San Francisco Veterinary Specialists, which voted to form a union in April 2018. They affiliated with the ILWU.

Contract negotiations were contentious from the start. Union members staged walkouts and rallies to draw attention to what they called "deplorable" working conditions and illegal anti-union activity by VCA. The NLRB, which oversees unions in the country, determined in August 2019 that VCA was not engaging in good-faith negotiations. A federal mediator was appointed to attend twice-monthly bargaining sessions starting in December that year.

The company said at the time it was committed to reaching "a contract that treated associates fairly and enabled VCA San Francisco Veterinary Specialists to continue providing high-quality specialty patient care and emergency services." It noted that negotiating a new contract can take time.

Dowling said it was clear that VCA would take a hard line when it hired law firm Jackson Lewis as a consultant. The firm provides "preventative labor relations" services, from Remaining Union Free simulations to stepping in for management at the bargaining table. John Logan, director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University, describes the company as one of several "global union avoidance behemoths."

"If you make [bargaining] a horrible experience," Dowling said, "no one else will want to do it. That’s what Jackson Lewis does." 

Negotiations ended when the San Francisco hospital building and other assets were sold to Animal Internal Medicine and Specialty Services, an independently owned competitor. The hospital was closed and staff were laid off in December 2020.

Santiago Lerma, an aide to a union-supporting city supervisor, reportedly told the news outlet Mission Local that he believed VCA sold the hospital to bust the union. Dowling said closing a location to kill a union happens all the time. For example, he said, in the case of warehouse workers, owners have been known to close a warehouse and lay off employees after they form a union, only to reopen and hire new staff at a new location nearby.

Running out the clock

The union at VCA Northwest Veterinary Services (NWVS) in Clackamas, Oregon, which formed in July 2018, collapsed under different circumstances.

Ryan Takas, an ILWU organizer who worked with the Clackamas union, said Mars/VCA representatives were tough negotiators.

"The company met as infrequently as possible, and agreements were far and few between," Takas told VIN News in an email. "Once COVID-19 hit, negotiations and agreements went even slower. Workers continued to work in deteriorating and ever more dangerous conditions."

Takas said management rejected demands for hazard pay or any other form of compensation for the increased risk.

It proved too much for the fledgling union, he said. Ultimately, with no end to negotiations (or the pandemic) in sight, the anti-union campaign gained enough support to undermine confidence in negotiations, Takas said. The company successfully argued that it no longer needed to bargain because the union had lost majority support from workers. 

In its statement, VCA said, "Associates representing a majority of the collective bargaining unit ... indicated they no longer wished to be represented by the ILWU. Consistent with the law, the hospital withdrew recognition from the union" in February this year. The NLRB accepted the actions.

The company said the withdrawal, as well as the dismissal of an unfair labor practice charge against VCA NWVS, "validates that this was an associate-driven decision."

ILWU's Dowling said he thinks VCA approached the two unions differently because they had different levels of support and engagement from the start. In San Francisco, the union had overwhelming and active backing. In Clackamas, the union passed with a one-vote margin, and management unsuccessfully challenged that vote early on.

Unlike in San Francisco, management in Clackamas did increase wages in the period leading up to the withdrawal and immediately after. "[T]he employer showered many employees with raises, something that, without unionization … never would have occurred," Takas said.

Dowling said worker benefits extend beyond individual unions. He claimed that the efforts by unions in North Seattle, Clackamas and San Francisco drove up wages — by as much as 10% to 15% — at other hospitals in the region. ILWU tracked regional wages through bargaining committee research and its network of supporters.

Despite the failure to reach a contract in San Francisco and Clackamas, Dowling takes heart from the ratified contract at Columbia River Veterinary Specialists. "A fair contract can come from an employer who bargains in good faith," Dowling said. "We know it can happen."

Correction: This story has been revised to correct the statement that VCA-San Francisco Veterinary Specialists was the first veterinary hospital to unionize. VIN News Service has learned there was at least one other. Support staff at a privately owned veterinary emergency hospital in Pennsylvania successfully formed a union in 2004 that reportedly disbanded three years later.

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