Veterinary workers continue unionization efforts

Four practices vote to unionize, contract negotiations stalled
Published on November 14, 2019

Veterinary workers at four practices on the West Coast have voted to unionize, but finalizing contracts with practice owners is proving difficult. 

Staff at VCA San Francisco Veterinary Specialists; BluePearl North Seattle; VCA Northwest Veterinary Specialists in Clackamas, Oregon; and Columbia River Veterinary Specialists in Vancouver, Washington, have successfully elected to unionize in the past few years. A campaign at another practice this year ended in a tie vote, which means that the business will continue as is for the time being. The National Veterinary Professionals Union will return in a year for a new vote.

“I wish I could say we’ve negotiated contracts in a bunch of practices and we’re organizing at a bunch more, but I can’t say that because we’re working really hard to get these contracts negotiated. And I understand why it’s difficult—it’s the first one,” said Liz Hughston, president of the NVPU.

The NVPU partners with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union for help with resources and outreach. Three of the four practices that voted to unionize are technically members of the ILWU. Union members at the practices include all nonmanagement, nonveterinarian members of the staff such as front desk personnel, kennel workers, veterinary assistants, and veterinary technicians.

Veterinary workers on strike
Workers at the VCA San Francisco Veterinary Specialists facility organized a one-hour strike on Sept. 5 in response to stalled contract negotiations.

A specific case

VCA San Francisco Veterinary Specialists voted to unionize in April 2018, but stalled contract negotiations have led staff members at the hospital to strike twice since then.

According to a statement from VCA: “At VCA, we have worked hard to build a special relationship with our associates that goes beyond a traditional employer or employee relationship. Each VCA Associate is an integral part of the company due to the nature of the care we provide.”

The statement continued, “With that in mind, it has always been our goal to foster a culture where our associates do not want or feel the need for union representation. They, of course, have a right to do so, but ultimately, we remain steadfast in our commitment to open conversations with associates to ensure we hear directly from them regarding any concerns they may have about their employment at VCA. We aim to work together in a process that is local, collaborative, and that avoids the legal process of collective bargaining and the challenges and divisions it can bring.”

The two parties have met 19 times for bargaining sessions but are reportedly not close to an agreement on a contract. VCA plans to continue bargaining efforts to reach an agreement, according to the VCA statement.

Several VCA SFVS workers responded with their own statement, which said: “Workers throughout the veterinary industry are concerned about low wages, poor benefits, inadequate training, and disrespect that are compromising quality care in an increasingly corporatized industry where profits seem to be the only thing that matters. Workers at a growing number of hospitals are coming together to work for improvements that will benefit patients, clients, and employees. It’s disappointing to see large corporations, including Mars, oppose these efforts by attacking workers with anti-union campaigns when we should all be working together.”

Mars Petcare bought about 800 VCA practices, including VCA San Francisco Veterinary Specialists, in September 2017 for $9.1 billion. Mars also owns the Banfield and BluePearl veterinary practice groups.

Resolving issues

Along with the two strikes, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in July urging Mars Petcare and the VCA to stop any anti-union behavior and labor law violations. The board sent a copy of the resolution to Mars Inc.

The ILWU also filed charges against VCA for violating federal labor laws with the National Labor Relations Board. However, VCA moved to settle the charges before a hearing was held by the NLRB.

“In resolving the charges, both parties (the ILWU and VCA SFVS) agreed that the settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing or violation of law. The parties instead decided to resolve the charges to avoid the time and expense of the hearing and focus efforts on bargaining to reach an agreement,” according to a statement from VCA.

The NLRB hearing was originally scheduled for Oct. 29.

“Those of us at SFVS and other locations remain committed to positive change through our union, and will continue to take action, especially when employers break the law and put profits ahead of quality care,” said VCA SFVS workers in the statement. “We’ve decided to hold two strikes that lasted one hour and included staff who stayed behind to protect the animals we love and want to help by improving conditions here and throughout the industry.”

Despite the contract issues, Liz Hughston, who is also a registered veterinary technician, is confident that the union campaigning will continue. Her hope is that if one or two practices successfully negotiate contracts, more will follow.