In the summer of 2017, a small group of veterinary personnel formed the National Veterinary Professional Union (NVPU). The members of this grassroots movement are largely from Seattle, and they have prompted plenty of conversation about the benefits of unionizing the profession, as well as the challenges that will likely arise. It should be noted that, in rare instances, unions have already existed in the veterinary industry, but these have been isolated ones under unique circumstances.

Here are more specifics about the current situation.

More About the NVPU

The organization has been called the brainchild of Morgan VanFleet, a veterinary technician who is leaving the industry to work in nursing. Another technician, Liz Hughston, is serving as the organization’s communications director and is listed on the group’s website as president. She has pointed out how quickly credentialed staff are leaving the profession, calling the current environment unsustainable and a motivation for unionization.

More specifically, citing a 2016 demographic survey by the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA): the average veterinary technician works in the field for seven years, with Hughston saying that reasons for the exit are numerous, with one of them clearly being compensation levels. And, because not enough people are graduating in the field to fill in empty positions, people involved in the NVPU are seeking solutions for a labor shortage that has the potential to become a real crisis.

One initiative of the NVPU is their Wage Transparency Project. A representative of the NVPU has said that wage uniformity is not a goal, but transparency is important because it’s difficult to bargain for pay increases if it isn’t clear where the wage basement and ceiling currently exist. As the organization has gathered wage information from people willing to disclose specifics, they have discovered that significant discrepancies exist, with new employees sometimes making more than employees with long tenures. To keep employees engaged in the workplace, achieving more parity is important, as is letting them know what monetary compensation is possible if they work hard and commit to staying in the industry.

The NVPU is currently local and, to nationalize their efforts, they are using Facebook to spread the word (https://www.facebook.com/NationalVeterinaryProfessionalsUnion/) and receiving some print coverage. They also have a basic website at http://www.natvpu.org and, as they get more dues-paying members, they plan to expand their outreach. Hughston expects this movement to grow slowly, first in Washington, then in the West Coast and then elsewhere around the country.

Obtaining better wages and benefits is a key focus, with other foci including requiring practices to invest more in training and providing enough quality protective equipment along with an overall safe working environment. Goals also include more workplace support for employee veterinarians, as well as technicians, unlicensed assistants, reception staff, client-care coordinators and other unlicensed support staff.

Hughston compares this movement to the 1960s and 1970s when nurses began to unionize, pointing out how it is a well-respected profession today. And, in fact, a longer-term goal of NVPU may include joining a larger union, such as the Service Employees International Union, for greater impact and bargaining power. This union represents about two million members who are nurses, nurses’ aides and home health care workers.

American Veterinary Medical Association Position

They are remaining neutral, saying the following. “We respect the right of our members who are employees to self-organize; to form, join, or assist labor organizations, and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. Similarly, we also respect their right to refrain from any such activity.”

Corporate Buyouts

 Is it reasonable to argue that corporate buyouts of individual practices are the impetus for the unionization movement. The reality is that increasing numbers of practices are consolidating, largely through corporate buyouts. In fact, Mars Petcare alone now owns about ten percent of the animal hospital market in the United States. As corporations own more hospitals, there will be less market competition, which means these corporate practices will be able to have more control over wages in the industry – which are currently staying flat.

Is unionizing the solution? Well, it depends upon whom you ask. If you’re an employee who struggles to meet expenses, the solidarity of a union will might seem attractive. Or, even if you make a reasonable salary, the benefits of unionizing may seem like a positive if you have crushing student loan debt. Yet another group of people who may find unions appealing: those who work at a corporate practice where there is disconnect between headquarters and the needs of the practice site. Hughston from the NVPU notes that, overall, non-corporate-owned practices typically take good enough care of their employees that they aren’t calling for a union. Instead, mostly it’s corporate staff that are clamoring for help and support.

We’ll now look at the pros and the cons of unionizing, as well as two additional related issues.

Union Pros

 Well-paid veterinary technicians, according to the 2016 NAVTA demographic survey, are paid only slightly above the poverty line, when income taxes are factored in. So, it’s clear that a problem exists, one that will continue to affect the industry’s ability to retain quality workers. Collective bargaining is one avenue towards helping workers obtain fair compensation and, therefore, boost retention rates at practices, although not everyone agrees it’s the right one.

From an underpaid worker’s point of view, there is a power in numbers. When, as just one example, an independent practice is sold to a corporate buyer, employees will likely feel powerless, and may desire a union to help them to navigate their new environment. And, there is reason for concern. Approximately 27,000 to 30,000 veterinary practices are operating in the United States today. The majority are still one-to-two doctor practices or at least individually owned. But, over the past decade, corporate ownership is increasingly taking hold, with Mars, Inc. owning more than 975 practices. And that was before they announced a successful acquisition of another corporate holding, VCA, Inc. This corporation owned 800 veterinary hospitals in the United States and Canada. This means that Mars now owns just under 2,000 practices in the United States and Canada, with about another 1,000 veterinary hospitals owned by other corporations. And, as the ownership landscape changes, the environment becomes increasingly riper for unionization.

As more practices become corporate, as already alluded to, there is naturally less competition, which gives the practices more ability to control wages. This seldom benefits the worker. According to a paper written by Richard Freeman, Harvard University economist, union members in the United States earn five to fifteen percent more in wages than their non-union counterparts. These figures do not factor in differences in pensions or health insurance, vacation or any other benefits. Unions can help.

 And, there are additional benefits of unionization, at least from the worker’s point of view. Hughston points out that unions can help with work/life balance and can help to create professional boundaries that are respected. These can include putting safe procedures and protocols into place; ensuring there is enough staffing for safety reasons; and more.

Let’s reiterate another point. Hughston acknowledges that unionization won’t be an attractive option to employees in private practices, especially those who feel comfortable and effective in negotiating directly with employers. She sees unionization as a valuable strategy to address the growing number of employees who are employed by corporate practices.

Union Cons

Independent practice owners may already be paying their team as much as they can to still manage their budgets, and they may already be doing all they reasonably can to create a quality environment for workers. Because the veterinary industry is cash-based (meaning most clients they see do not have health care insurance for their companion animals), there is a monetary cap of what an independent practice can afford to pay. Wage increases beyond that, then, will translate into increased prices, which may cause clients to go elsewhere to a non-union practice or not make appointments as often. It can also mean that, going forward, these practices will need to hire people with lower skill sets, which could harm the skilled workers, the practices themselves and the clients and their companion animals. Wages increased beyond what a private practice can bear could also lead to staff layoffs.

Hughston’s viewpoint is that there are other ways to boost wages, perhaps by having corporations accept a lower profit margin and for the entire industry to work together to create a sustainable profession. In the long run, she says, this will save all practices (independent and corporate) money. But, that may an idealistic comment, not a practical one, with private practices potentially hurt by unions as difficult industry problems are addressed.

Some people believe that unionization won’t necessarily improve pay and benefits or provide improved patient care. According to the executive director of NAVTA, unionizing will not necessarily be cheap for members, with the NVPU looking at a union model where members would pay two to three percent of their wages to belong. So, the net result in their paychecks may be disappointing.

Here’s another potential negative to consider. How would the patients suffer if practice employees went on strike?

Proactive Actions for Practices to Take

When employees at a practice unionize, life becomes more complicated for management. The practice would need to bargain with union over wages, terms of employment, hours of work permitted and other issues. Independently negotiating with unionized employees would violate federal labor law; going through collective bargaining, meanwhile, can be a drawn-out and often frustrating process.

To try to prevent employees from seeking to unionize, here are tips. First, don’t create fertile ground for unions. If your employees feel ignored or treated unfairly, or if they feel as though dealing directly with employers would be futile, that’s fertile ground for unionization.

The unionizing process would go like this. An employee (or more than one) would work with a union organizer to distribute literature to coworkers, and they would be asked to sign authorization cards. If 30 percent of the staff signed them, showing interest in the union, an election is held. Then, if the majority of people who show up to the election vote yes, the practice has been unionized.

As an example, let’s say your practice employs 30 people. If at least ten sign authorization cards, the issue of unionization is put to a vote. If only three people show up to the election? Then two yesses unionizes the practice.

So, self-audit. Are you paying the fairest rates you reasonably can? Offering the best benefits that fit within your budget? What creative yet low cost benefits can you offer? What can you do to improve morale? Fix any fertile ground.

Also consider creating a written policy, if you haven’t already, that restricts any solicitation, distribution of literature and the like at the practice. If you enforce the policy strictly, then employees can only distribute union literature in non-working areas during non-working times. But, if you don’t have a written policy, or if you have one that you sporadically enforce – perhaps by allowing sales of Girl Scout cookies, local charity donations, sign-ups for races and the like – then you can’t effectively prevent the distribution of union literature because that’s a violation of anti-discrimination provisions in federal labor laws.

If employees express interest in a union, you cannot threaten them, interrogate them or retaliate against them. You cannot promise them benefits if they switch positions to begin opposing the union. Be sure to train your managers so they know the law and how they can and cannot respond, and get advice from experienced labor counsel, as needed.

What If Employees Change Their Minds? Getting Out of a Union

According to a Forbes article, A Deep Secret That Labor Unions Don’t Want Workers to Know, “It is, quite simply, nearly impossible for workers to get rid of a union once it has been certified as their monopoly bargaining representative.” That’s because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does not require an election when a designated term ends, such as the expiration of a contract. This means that workers will likely not get a chance to vote on whether they want to continue union representation.

And, in non-right to work states, if you are a private sector worker who works in a union shop, union membership will be a job requirement. You want the job? You join the union.

The only option for a practice where workers have changed their minds is what’s called a decertification election, “held after the expiration of a contract or a narrow 30-day window near the end of the third year of a contract. The union can circumvent a time window by agreeing to a new contract before the window opens—thus moving the window to the end of the new contract, when they can move it again.”

The bottom line is that it’s important to think very carefully about voting in a union, understanding that, while it’s not literally impossible to vote it out, it can be extremely challenging. This is especially true in non-right to work states, but not exclusively so.

What’s Next?

Practices concerned with unionization should proactively listen to employees and see how concerns can be addressed in a way that doesn’t require a union. Although increased wages are typically seen as the primary goal of collective bargaining, a more abstract but perhaps equally important goal is respect. Practice owners who find ways to contribute meaningfully to their employees’ work experiences and environment and who become increasingly aware of and respectful of their employees’ contributions have the potential to create win/win non-unionized solutions.