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Veterinary workers who want to join a union say local pet hospital owners are stalling on a vote

Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Service business sign.
Max Schulte
Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Service at 825 White Spruce Blvd., across from the Monroe Community College campus.

On Jan. 14, veterinary technicians and assistants at Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Services in Brightonvoted 65 to 28 to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union.

They are seeking better pay and working conditions and a greater voice in their workplace.

But two months later, they're still waiting for their parent company, Thrive Pet HealthCare, to agree to start contract negotiations.

Thrive says it's not avoiding the process, but trying to open it to more of their employees. A company spokesperson told WXXI News that all eligible employees at their 18 other Rochester-area practices (15 veterinary clinics, a rehabilitation facility, a laboratory, and a crematorium) should be allowed to vote on the question of union representation.

"We feel like it's just a delay tactic," said VSES employee Sam Estes, a member of the union's negotiating committee.

He said there are no grounds for all of the company's local workers to have a say, based on their different job functions and skills.

Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Service workers who organized to form a union gathered to hear the counting of votes by the National Labor Relations Board.
Max Schulte
Pro-union sentiments decorate a vehicle of one of the Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Service workers who organized to join the IAMAW union in January.

A regional branch of the National Labor Relations Board agreed with Estes in December. But now Thrive is appealing the decision to a 5-member NLRB labor board in Washington, D.C.

If they rule against the VSES employees on this, Estes said they'd be back at square one in their efforts to unionize.

"You need 30 percent of the employees to file a petition (to join a union)," he said, "and we wouldn't have the 30 percent, so our petition would be thrown out."

The union has filed an unfair labor practice charge against Thrive, saying the company is obligated to participate in contract talks since the NLRB certified the workers' union vote on Jan. 24.

There's a strong argument that employers would be much better off if they would respect the choice of the employees to bargain in good faith, according to Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of labor and employment law at Cornell University's the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Lieberwitz said that is especially true in fields like veterinary medicine, where there is a shortage of workers.

"It's really an exercise in finding compromise so that both sides can say, 'Well, we've reached an agreement that everybody can live with," she said. "This will enable them to focus on working well together."

Lieberwitz said there are two reasons employers resist unionization. One is that they want as much unilateral control as they can get over wages, benefits, scheduling, hiring and firing, and other workplace issues such as safety conditions.

"The second reason," she said, is "employers want to maintain control over the distribution of the profits of the business.

Through collective bargaining, unions can try to distribute those profits more evenly.

Estes said it's disappointing he and his fellow union members haven't been able to address their concerns yet.

"But we're here and we’re not going anywhere, so they're going to have to bargain with us at some point," he said. "It's just, how long are they gonna delay it?"

In the meantime, Estes said he is trying to keep his co-workers motivated and focused.

In a written statement, Thrive said it "remains focused on what unites our organization - our deeply held commitment to provide our communities with exceptional pet healthcare."

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.
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