Photo credit: Siena Animal Hospital.

Bri De Libertis has been working as a veterinary assistant at the VCA San Francisco Veterinary Specialists on 18th and Alabama for seven years. But every time she and her co-workers asked management for a raise and better benefits, she says, the answer was the same: Sorry, the veterinary hospital is in the middle of a “raise freeze.”

De Libertis added that staff was kept “skeleton” thin and the hospital had trouble retaining staff because of the low pay and few promotion opportunities.

“It was very apparent we needed to do something,” De Libertis said.  

So, in April, she and around 100 of her co-workers at the Mission District hospital formed a union for veterinary technicians, customer service workers and facilities staff under the aegis of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The West Coast Pet Care Workers is purportedly the first union formed by vet techs in some two decades.

It also has the potential to galvanize more organizing efforts within VCA Animal Hospitals, a chain of around 800 hospitals and 60 diagnostic laboratories in the United States and Canada. It employs around 23,000 people and, in 2015, had revenue of $2.1 billion. In January 2017, the Mars Corporation — yes, the candy bar company — bought VCA for $9.1 billion. It is the largest private veterinary hospital chain in North America.

“For a billion-dollar corporation, they could do a lot better,” said Laura Territo, who has worked at San Francisco’s VCA as a veterinary technician for four years. Most support workers, Territo said, start at minimum wage and can only go as high as the “high 20s” per hour. Territo added that her health plan requires her to pay a $70 co-pay per visit.

The workers are now asking for better wages, more staffing, and a better benefits package.

VCA leadership did not answer questions about unionization efforts in San Francisco. It only offered via a statement that it was “sad” to learn a portion of its employees wanted to form a union, and that “we believe it is best to maintain the direct relationship with our employees to address concerns they have.”

“We are working to better understand the concerns of our employees and remain committed to the industry, our employees and to quality care for our patients,” the statement continues.  

Nevertheless, the newly formed union’s battle is far from over. The West Coast Pet Workers are currently in the middle of contract negotiations, and De Libertis and Territo said VCA’s management — and its legal team — are stalling negotiations and attempting to quash similar efforts at their other hospitals on the West Coast.

But for Territo, the low wages and thin staff were problems long before the Mars takeover.

In October 2017, staff began to collect signatures. “The support from our co-workers was considerable,” De Libertis said.

Once organizers had gathered enough signatures, they in March 2018 presented the hospital’s manager, Judith Goodman, with a letter stating their intention to organize. The hospital had two days to respond, Territo and De Libertis said, and management failed to do so. “Which meant they were not recognizing our union,” Territo said.

In the following days, Territo and De Libertis said, Judith Goodman, then hospital’s manager, began taking aside employees five at a time for “sit-downs” to dissuade them from supporting organizing efforts — explaining “why our industry doesn’t work well with unions,” De Libertis said.

VCA’s national president, Doug Drew — along with the hospital’s head of HR and the head of the veterinary technicians — subsequently visited the hospital “to talk to us about why unions are bad” and ask how they could address the employees’ workplace concerns without accommodating a union, De Libertis said.  

At the meeting, the employees made their concerns clear: that they were not being paid enough, they were too short-staffed, and much of the staff is not properly trained. In response, “Corporate said they had no idea they were inaccessible,” De Libertis recalled.

Within days, employees received an email from Drew announcing Goodman’s resignation as manager — stating that “she was no longer a good fit,” according to Territo. She was to be replaced by Terry Jones, the assistant manager, who had a good rapport with the workers, according to Territo.

Goodman declined to comment.

Regardless, in early April, the 100-odd employees voted in favor of ratifying their union, with 74 percent in favor. And now, as negotiations continue, they say management is actively resisting their efforts by stalling. “VCA is spending a lot of money on a legal team,” De Libertis said.

The hospital hired two legal teams notorious for “union busting” — Littler and Mendelson and Jackson Lewis — to handle contract negotiations.

Only two bargaining sessions have taken place in the past four months. Both De Libertis and Territo note that management is incentivized to slow the process: “If we don’t get a contract in a year, then we have to revote,” on whether to maintain the union, Territo said.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union is aware of the vet techs’ ongoing efforts. “The company, Mars/VCA, has made it clear that they intend to punish workers who want to get together and solve problems that are common throughout the system,” said Craig Merrilees, a spokesperson for the ILWU. “Until the company gets rid of their anti-union consultants and their anti-union operations, workers have decided they’re gonna take this one step at a time.”

If the union and company agree on a contract, it will pay a portion of its dues to the ILWU.

The potential for the company’s other locations to unionize is unclear, and whatever comes to pass could require quite some time, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

According to Bronfenbrenner’s research, attempts to negotiate a first-time contract succeed around 80 percent of the time. A good first contract, she said, will make unionizing at other locations more successful — although nailing down “a first contract, based on my research, the average time is two years,” she said.  

Recognizing the nascent union in San Francisco could be cost-beneficial for VCA, added Bronfenbrenner. But, she notes, the specter of 800 hospitals pushing to unionize could lead the conglomerate to dig in its heels.

If this employer is as big as you say,” she said. “They’re gonna fight them all the way.”

Photo credit: Siena Animal Hospital. 

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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  1. I also work for vca and I get paid the same amount that a new hire at McDonald’s get, pretty sad with more responsibility and training we have that we are only worth the same as a fast food worker. They say we have benefits well so does fast work, vca says the value their employees by doing or saying what.? They spent how much on a new logo but couldn’t show their appreciation in a monetary form. Even a bonus would have been greatly appreciated. I can guarantee that none of the higher management teams people etc could make a living on the pay we bring home. I really thought when mars bought vca that at least something would change. I would like to challenge any upper management to do our job for 1 month with our pay then let’s hear what they say. When I see complaints about vca and then see HR respond by saying we value your opinion and to call them to discuss matters do they really think that they are going to fix the problem and really value their employees. I am sorry but when you say you value your employees then do so and not just throw out empty words .Wouldn’t vca won’t positive employee reviews where everyone would want to work for them instead of the complaints we have seen, that right there just goes to show that they actually don’t care about the people who are making the money for them to have their large paychecks etc.

  2. Taking a risk here as I work at a vca hospital. We also have the same problems with inadequate pay, not enough staff and people with little experience working as techs. Most people that seek employment from vca to another hospital cite pay as the #1 issue.

    One weekend I said to a co-worker that if we had an emergency, we would be screwed because no one but our doctor that day would really know what to do. We love our clients and their animals and would be very upset if something negative happened due to these issues.

    The only real bonus we get is “free” boarding (that is, if you have pets). The problem is the kennel workers now have the extra work of caring for employees pets with little thanks or rewards.

    VCA hospital is by far, the cheapest place I have ever worked at in terms of benefits and pay.

  3. I wish the staff well in this efforts. They have some caring vets. Don’t know how well they are treated and paid. But this is very costly vet specialists business and as pointed out in article BIG business. Owned by MARS!! The staff deserve more pay and better staffing. I hope they are successful. I had a pet patient seen there over couple of years. Wonderful Dr., harried, kind staff and big assault on my bank account. We pay if we can for beloved pets. Then I expect staff to be paid well.

  4. Hey there, Veterinary Is spelled wrong in the address link that populates the online header people click on. It unfortunately could have readers not take this story as seriously as they could. Please correct it! “http://missionlocal-newspack.newspackstaging.com/2018/08/sf-veternary-workers-unionize-attempt-to-drive-hard-bargain-with-9-billion-vca-corporation”

    1. Thanks for the heads-up, but I think once you’ve established a link it’s baked-in. Alas.

      JE