A sixth veterinary hospital in US votes to unionize

Discontent with new consolidator-owner fueled worker action

Published: January 20, 2022
Photo courtesy of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
Support staff from Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Services in Rochester, New York, and labor organizers gathered last week to watch, via Zoom, a National Labor Relations Board representative tally their vote to form a union.

Veterinary technicians, assistants, customer service representatives and other support personnel at a specialty and emergency hospital in Rochester, New York, voted last week to form a union. The 65-to-28 vote came less than one year after practice consolidator Pathway Vet Alliance acquired the hospital as part of the purchase of a 16-clinic group.

Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Services (VSES), since 2018, is the sixth veterinary practice to unionize, the first outside the West Coast and the largest yet, with 130 workers in the bargaining unit. It's also the first veterinary group to be represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), which represents nearly 600,000 members in sectors including manufacturing, aerospace, shipbuilding and health care.

Union organizers and a staff member who spearheaded the drive said the effort was fueled by discontent with Pathway, which took over in May 2021.

"We just felt that the support wasn't there anymore, and we didn't have a voice and we didn't know who was making the decisions," said Sam Estes, a licensed veterinary technician who has worked at VSES for nearly 14 years, his entire career.

Estes said that in addition to the communication problems, Pathway scaled back some health care and pet care benefits and suspended annual merit-based raises.

Pathway, which began going by the name Thrive Pet Heathcare late last year, owns more than 400 primary and specialty care practices across the country, according to its website. In lieu of an interview or answering written questions, a Thrive spokesperson provided a statement to the VIN News Service by email. After confirming details of the union vote and the date of the purchase, the statement reads:

"We have been and continue to strive to be a leading employer in the veterinary profession. We believe that the pets who bring wellness and joy to all of us deserve exceptional care from people and professionals who are loved, respected, and thriving too. We also believe that our teams are better served without union representation but respect the election-related process. We remain committed to creating a supportive and thriving environment for our teams and serving our patients and pet families."

In brief

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that oversees the voting process, is expected to certify the vote next week. After that, members of the union will field a negotiation committee. Most first contracts are agreed upon and ratified by membership within one year, however negotiations can go longer.

Case parallels with Starbucks

Estes started the labor-organizing process by contacting Liz Hughston, president of the National Veterinary Professionals Union, for help in late May. Hughston co-founded NVPU in 2017 and has worked with IAM and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in organizing efforts.

She warned Estes that organizing was time-consuming, difficult and stressful. To her surprise, within three months — by late August — workers were ready to notify management of their intentions. "They really stuck together and did a tremendous job of on-the-ground organizing," Hughston said. "Seven months after initial contact, they won their election, which is pretty quick."

The workers hit a speed bump when Pathway appealed to the NLRB to intervene, arguing that VSES was not "an appropriate bargaining unit."

At a hearing in September, the company argued that the unit must also include nonprofessional employees at all the businesses in the Rochester-area group. Their reasoning was that these businesses — namely VSES, 15 general practices, a crematorium and a rehabilitation facility — were integrated. In other words, the company wanted to require that the VSES team organize support staff at all the entities in order to move forward. Many of the employees at other locations have distinctly different concerns, and at least one is located 30 miles away.

VSES countered that its situation was distinct from Pathway's other Rochester businesses and general practice clinics because specialty and emergency practice involves different skill sets and expectations.

At around the same time, the coffee giant Starbucks was making a similar argument to block individual cafes in Buffalo, New York — 75 miles west of Rochester — from forming their own bargaining units. Starbucks argued that the 20 shops in the area shared "a community of interest" and so needed to be treated as a single unit. 

The NLRB decided in favor of employee organizers in both cases, ruling that VSES and individual Starbucks coffee shops can constitute their own bargaining units. Since then, Starbucks cafes in Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Knoxville and elsewhere have filed to form unions. 

According to union representatives and Estes during the months before the NLRB ruling, Pathway held mandatory staff meetings at which company executives argued that they could better address employee concerns than a union. They also brought in Crossroads Group, what Hughston called a "union buster," to try to persuade dissatisfied workers that allying with the machinists would harm them in the end.

Hughston characterized the anti-union campaign as aggressive. "I'm anxious to see what their stance will be when it comes to bargaining," she said. "I'm really hoping for a collaboration."

Labor organizers focus on consolidators

The recent labor push at U.S. veterinary practices dates to 2018, when support staff at four veterinary hospitals formed unions, working with NVPU and/or ILWU. Of those bargaining units, only one, at Columbia River Veterinary Specialists in southwest Washington, has managed to ratify a contract. That hospital is owned by PetVet Care Centers, a private-equity-backed consolidator with more than 400 hospitals in 36 states. 

Two of the unions — at VCA San Francisco Veterinary Specialists and BluePearl Pet Hospital in North Seattle — engaged in three years of fruitless contract negotiations, only to see their hospitals closed. VCA is the largest stand-alone hospital chain in North America, with more than 1,000 locations in the U.S. and Canada.  BluePearl is a group of emergency and specialist-referral hospitals with around 100 locations in the country. Both are owned by Mars Inc., the largest owner of veterinary practices in the world. 

The union at another VCA hospital, in northeast Oregon, was dissolved due to a lack of employee confidence after it failed to deliver a contract.

Last year, another union formed at a hospital southwest of Seattle belonging to Cara Veterinary, which owns eight practices in the region. Hughston said negotiations with Cara Veterinary are going well. "They have been really collaborative and given us a lot of availability," she said. 

There have been no support staff unions to form at owner-operated practices in this current wave.

It's no accident it's happening at large corporate practices, said Mike Evans, an IAM organizer working with VSES. He believes rampant consolidation is pushing the trend.

"There is a venture capitalist corporation attitude coming into this industry at a vicious pace. They are buying up, buying up, buying up," he said, adding that workers turn to collective bargaining because they are trying to figure out how to work with owners and management to "balance the value of their labor with the company's drive for profit."

Thrive is owned by TSG Consumer Partners, a private equity company based in California. According to TSG's website, the business has $11 billion in assets under management and owns nearly 20 companies, including Dutch Bros Coffee, Duckhorn Wine Company and Mavis Discount Tire. 

Hughston echoed Evans, saying that NVPU is particularly focused on working with support staff at chain practices.

"I want to assure private practices, we're not going to be organizing your practice because you are there on the floor with your people working with them," Hughston said. "You know what the issues are, you know what equipment is broken, who needs time off... What we're talking about is places where people don't have a voice anymore."

Correction: This story has been revised to correct the statement that there have been no labor-organizing efforts at owner-operated practices. After publication, the VIN News Service learned there has been at least one: Support staff at a privately owned veterinary emergency hospital in Pennsylvania successfully formed a union in 2004. That union reportedly disbanded three years later after contentious contract negotiations, a strike and a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that the company had violated labor law in its conduct relating to the union.

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