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The Denver Health and Hospital Authority board of directors voted unanimously last week not to recognize attempts by nurses to organize union representation -- after employees at Denver Health filed a lawsuit against the city agency, saying the hospital violated their constitutional rights by threatening and intimidating them and disregarding their right to free speech on the job.

Since March, nurses had been asking the board to allow a vote on whether the Service Employees International Union Local 105 (SEIU) should represent them in an effort to pursue better working conditions and staff-to-patient ratios ("Critical Condition," June 12). However, as a public-sector organization not covered by the labor laws administered by the National Labor Relations Board, Denver Health is not required to allow a vote.

The lawsuit, which was filed on June 23 in Denver District Court, alleges that hospital managers threatened nurses who signed a petition supporting membership in the SEIU and told them they weren't allowed to join a union and couldn't say anything in favor of it. The nurses and the SEIU charge that such actions are a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which guarantee the right to free speech, freedom of association and the right to petition government for redress.

"All we want is to improve the quality of patient care at our hospital and to have a voice in how it's delivered," says Pat Thompson, a nurse at Denver Health for nine years and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "We filed this lawsuit to protect our First Amendment freedoms."

The plaintiffs are not seeking damages, but are asking Denver Health to stop the harassment and remove disciplinary documents related to the union from supporters' personnel files. The hospital refuses to comment on the lawsuit, instead issuing a statement saying it "fully recognizes all employees' constitutional right of association; they are not precluded from joining any group or association including unions, as long as it is done on the employees' own time."

Denver Health, which provides most of the medical care to Denver's uninsured residents, did protect its nurses in a recently announced budget cut. While 122 workers will be laid off from the hospital and almost 1,300 employees furloughed, the nursing ranks -- which provide much of the front-line patient care -- will not be cut in the attempt to close a projected $21 million deficit.

SEIU spokesmen say they are not deterred and will continue their campaign to represent the nurses.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers