How to Build a Union from Scratch: It Could Start with Just an Address.

Categories: The Insider, Organizing

Ever wonder how a new AFGE local comes to be?  

What AFGE just did in Oahu, Hawaii, gives us a glimpse into a challenging, labor-intensive yet profoundly rewarding effort to bring workers’ rights to the masses.  

Our new local in Oahu, Local 1239, has recently been chartered to represent Registered Nurses at the Tripler Army Medical Center.  

It started out in November 2017 when AFGE sent a team to do research on the medical center and find out if employees there were interested in forming a union. AFGE had nothing except an address of the facility.  

A few months later, in March 2018, AFGE sent National Organizer Jorge Perez there. They went to the facility for the first time – only to find that they needed access to even pass the gate guards.  

From their research, they knew the Department of Veterans Affairs was at the facility, so they told them they were there for the VA. Obtaining a pass was easy after that. 

Once inside, they began to map out the entire hospital. They looked for employees’ names on bulletin boards and any lists they could find.  

Striking up a conversation 

The team hung out in the cafeteria and food court to talk to employees. Their first supporters were a chiropractor and a social worker. But it wasn’t until they spoke to a registered nurse from the inpatient pediatrics unit that they made real inroads.  

The RN got excited that they were there. She went back and began to bring other RNs she knew to speak to us. These conversations were invaluable. We got more information about the hospital and how things worked there. 

But then there was another bump in the road – that RN quit the Army hospital and went to work for the VA. We had to build from the contacts we gathered through the RN’s assistance. 

During those conversations, we were told about the Desmond T. Doss Medical Clinic at the Schofield Barracks Army Base, so the union added that facility to our campaign. Our plans have always been to organize the entire professional unit, but at the time the RN support took off, so we went with it.  

The Army’s attempt to shoot down our plan 

As soon as the Army learned our union had been talking to people, they immediately tried to undermine us. 

They told the machinist union that had been representing non-professional workers there that our union was actively talking to their members in an attempt to raid their represented unit. But AFGE was clear that we were NOT there for these employees since they had already been represented. 

Filing our first FLRA election petition  

In February 2019, we conducted a complete campaign review and determined that we had reached enough support to file for a union election with the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA).  

We gave ourselves a month to continue to gather support because we were never able to get a complete employee roster. 

Two months later, we filed for a union election with the FLRA for the nurses at both facilities. Our first petition included the Registered Nurses, the Nurse Practitioners, and the Midwife Nurses.  

As expected, the agencies rejected our petition saying we did not have enough support. They then filed objections stating that the clinic in Schofield was not part of Tripler and that it had a separate command. They also stated that we should have petitioned for the entire professional unit and not just the nurses. That’s one of their delay tactics.  

AFGE amended the petition and refiled in May, leaving the clinic in Schofield out. The agency once again contested our petition, saying we did not petition for the entire professional unit. They objected also because of the upcoming reorganization of the nurses from the Army into the Defense Health Agency (DHA).  

During this time, we continued our outreach organizing plan to speak to more RNs and other professionals while our attorney Julia Turner of the General Counsel Office handled the legal front with the agency and FLRA.  

A big break 

Shortly after filing the second petition, Jorge met an outstanding, passionate outpatient clinic nurse named Tamra Pickens, who would later become the local’s first president. 

“This gave our union hope because most of our supporters at this point had been nurses from the hospital’s inpatient side,” Jorge said. 

We set up a meeting during her lunch break, and she brought three other RNs with her – Hazelle Ocampo, Trina Clark, and Leilani Ganir.  

All four nurses took assignments to reach out to other outpatient clinic nurses, boosting our support throughout the bargaining unit.  

Fear of retaliation 

Three months after our secondpetition, both sides couldn’t agree. The FLRA then scheduled a hearing to determine whether it was appropriate for us to file a petition to organize RNs. We were forced into a hearing, delaying things further. 

The hearing was scheduled for three days in August 2019. The agency hired a union-busting law firm to represent them during the hearing.  

In their pre-hearing brief, the hired law firm removed their claim about not filing for the entire professional unit and stated that the nurses petition was not appropriate because we had included other nurse classifications that required a higher learning, more responsibility and with a higher scope of practice. In addition, the nurses would be transitioning to DHA.  

But we didn’t change our position, insisting that the unit was appropriate and that an election should be conducted. Julia also included other certifications and quoted case law.  

After the scheduling of the hearing, AFGE National Organizer Lisa Marie Akau joined the team and our focus then changed from organizing to recruiting RNs to participate in the hearing as witnesses. 

We spoke to many RNs, but most had scheduling conflicts and others were simply afraid of speaking out against their employer in person in a hearing setting.  

During the hearing, the agency had an entire law firm, two agency Labor Relations reps, a colonel, a captain, and a front-line supervisor. Our union had Julia and Tamra – our only RN that came through. The hearing lasted two days and Tamra did a great job testifying and answering questions from all sides.  

After the hearing concluded, we continued our outreach organizing plan and also began to speak to the RNs from Schofield again.  

The verdict 

The FLRA issued its decision on October 30, 2019. They stated that our petition was not appropriate because of the two RN classifications we had included in our petition, but the FLRA also discredited the other agency claims.  

There was another problem for us.  

The time had passed and many of our 2018 showing of interest cards had expired. We went into high gear and re-engaged those who had previously signed the cards, removed those that were no longer at the agency, and continued to speak to every RN that we could.  

The Army continued its delay tactics 

We then moved forward and filed a third time with the FLRA in November 2019, but only for the Tripler RNs.  

Soon after our third petition, the agency responded again that our petition should be thrown out arguing again that the RNs were not an appropriate unit and stating that we should have petitioned for all the professionals employed at Tripler.  

“Once again, they wanted to delay and, in my eyes, discourage the RNs by making them feel it was a losing battle,” Jorge explained.  

Our campaign was then switched to half organizing and half maintaining. We now had to maintain our support while continuing to outreach to more RNs.  

More complication: COVID-19 

In March 2020, we decided to refile for the Schofield RNs for the second time, and as expected the agency’s position was identical to the one for Tripler.  

COVID-19 also started to spread throughout the country. On that same day, AFGE pulled the organizers out of the field for their safety.  

Due to the pandemic and the shutdown of the country, we again had to shift our plan that consisted mainly of maintaining our support while Julia worked on the legal front.  

The local’s internal RN committee we had formed to help with organizing continued our internal outreach while Jorge focused on sending out emails, texts, and calling RNs. During this time, National Organizer Lisa Marie, who is based in Hawaii, took a bigger role as our main point of contact within the island.  

Victory, finally!  

A week later, both sides agreed not to proceed on having a second hearing and agreed on only submitting legal briefs.  

On May 6, 2020, the FLRA issued its decision regarding Tripler's third petition and Schofield's second and finally gave us a victory, stating that the agency’s claim held no merit.  

With no real timelines and a major pandemic, we continued to maintain our support virtually and on the ground. 

Six months had passed since our favorable decision, and the FLRA went forward and issued the election order on Nov. 12. The election was scheduled to start in one weeks' time. It was set to begin on Nov. 17 and finish on Dec. 15. We got to work with our get out to vote plan.  

On Dec. 16, 2020, the election results were in, and we won.  

There was a total of 378 eligible employees for both elections combined, and at the end 104 RNs voted in favor for AFGE and 9 voted against.  

“Without the help and support and all the work from our RNs, we would not have won,” Jorge concluded. “And not to mention when the pandemic hit, they did all the internal organizing themselves with my assistance via phone, email, and text.” 

Charting a new local  

After discussions with AFGE District 12 in mid-January 2021, the District 12 national vice president determined that the RNs were to be chartered into their own new local.  

A few weeks later, the team received a copy of the charter application and its requirements from our National Secretary Treasurer’s Office. They conducted interviews on recruiting charter members and identifying those that would step up and take on a bigger role in a leadership capacity. 

We set up two charter member meetings with District 12, and more than 12 RNs showed up to both meetings. They submitted their paperwork as charter members. During those two meetings, an initial local leadership body was selected and confirmed by D. 12 national vice president.  

The charter process was completed on April 20, 2021, creating and establishing a new AFGE local.  

Since the certification, the local has opened a bank account and is in the process of completing the local’s by-laws – the rules that governs the local.  

District 12 has assigned National Representative Nicole Ferree to the new local. She has submitted the proper paperwork to the Defense Finance Accounting Service to set up the local to process new membership applications. Jorge helped the local create their union logo. They are also in the process of opening a website and local Facebook page. 

As of today, we have not recruited any members yet, but we are hoping to have the by-laws completed soon. 

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