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.