NURSING ROUND-UP: Strikes, Union Activity Abound
Today's Wall Street Journal/California Edition highlights growth in California's nursing labor unions -- a trend that may be a harbinger for activity in the rest of the country -- as nurses voice their objections to managed care's profit-driven mechanics. Impatience with inadequate staffing, stagnating pay, layoffs and compromised patient care has led more than 4,400 nurses to join the state's largest and most aggressive union, the California Nurses Association, over the last three years. Other unions are also signing on new members, including the Service Employees International Union and the United Nurses Associations of California. The wave of new interest in unions is concentrated in Southern California, which with only 10% of hospitals unionized has a weak tradition of health care labor representation relative to the northern portion of the state, where employees at nearly 80% of hospitals are represented by unions (Leung, 9/15 issue).
- About 60 nurses and supporters picketed Tenet-owned Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo last Thursday to express concern over staffing shortages, lack of authority in patient care and union issues. Replacement workers filled in on the job. Hospital representatives say the ongoing dispute, which will continue until a federal mediator intervenes, focuses on its support of an open-shop union. That would allow staff nurses who do not want to pay union dues to donate those funds to charity, though they would continue to enjoy union benefits. The union wants a closed shop, requiring all nurses to contribute dues. Short staffing is a statewide problem -- California ranks lowest among the states in nurse-to-patient ratios -- that may be curbed through legislation passed last week as part of California's sweeping health care reforms. A bill awaiting Gov. Gray Davis' signature would require the state DHHS to determine patient-to-nurse ratios for individual hospitals, a move that some observers fear could cause those facilities who cannot meet ratio requirements to turn patients away (Pemberton, San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune, 9/10).
- Negotiations that began last September between nurses at Hemet Valley Medical Center and the board of Valley Health System have reached an impasse, the Hemet News reports. Nurses are hoping to continue discussion of their proposed across-the-board pay increases and calls to eliminate "divisive and demeaning" performance-based raises. But health system board members, claiming that meeting nurses' demands "would have put the health system into financial turmoil," last Tuesday voted to uphold their May approval of $3.3 million in employee benefit cutbacks. Though the cuts, including reduction of annual sick days and elimination of tenure-based pay bonuses, have been accepted by other employees, nurses are holding out on proposals they feel "already have lowered worker morale and patient care quality," a concern some patients confirm (Ramirez, 9/9).
- Nurses at Tenet-owned Encino Hospital have ratified their first union contract with Local 535, SEIU, Social Services Union American Federation of Nurses. The union also represents nursing staff who went on strike last year at another Tenet facility, Tarzana Medical Center (Los Angeles Times, 9/14).