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HARRY BERNSTEIN / Labor

County Nurses Strike Points Up the Need for Arbitration

February 23, 1988|HARRY BERNSTEIN

It somehow seems out of character for those "angels of mercy," the Los Angeles County nurses, to vociferously complain on picket lines and in a suit that county supervisors are racist, sexist and foolish, to boot.

Some may have sounded a bit strident, perhaps, but their complaints are not frivolous and are being echoed frequently these days by nurses around the nation at private and public hospitals.

It was illegal for 4,000 Los Angeles County nurses to demonstrate the depths of their unhappiness by going on strike at County-USC Medical Center.

However, often government workers have no choice. They either strike illegally or continue working with the wages and job conditions unilaterally imposed on them by government managers, a system more understandable in totalitarian countries than in the United States.

Consider the strike issue first and then the bitter accusations made by the nurses.

There were cries of outrage from conservatives and cheers from liberals when the California Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that almost all who work for the state or local governments have the same freedom to strike that non-government workers have.

Excluded from that "free-at-last" ruling were government workers who would endanger the public health and safety by striking. Illogically, however, the court offered no alternative to workers forbidden to strike.

In contrast, laws in Ohio, Illinois and a few other states allow government employees who are barred from striking to take unresolved contract disputes with government managers to neutral arbitrators for binding decisions. Even most federal employees, all of whom are forbidden by law from striking, are given the alternative of arbitrating contract disputes other than those dealing with wages and fringe benefits that are fixed by the President and Congress.

The U.S. Postal Service takes the sensible next step: Its workers can go to arbitration on all contract issues, including those involving wages and benefits.

The county's nurses struck for three days last month but were forced to end their walkout by a Superior Court judge who, following the state high court's ruling, held that the strike could hurt the public.

It is difficult to argue against the general notion that there should be a way to avoid such potentially harmful strikes, although there are no laws taking away the freedom of nurses to strike in private hospitals. Likewise, there are no restrictions barring strikes against privately owned utilities, such as gas and electric companies, even if this too might cause health and safety problems.

Still, common sense suggests that a major prolonged strike by nurses at such institutions as Los Angles County-USC Medical Center could be harmful.

As brief as the strike was, non-emergency operations were delayed, some patients were discharged early and many were moved to other hospitals that were reluctant to take them because most county hospital patients are too poor to pay the costs.

The California Legislature should solve the problem as Congress did for postal workers and as other state legislatures have for state employees: require arbitration as an alternative to strikes that may pose a public danger.

In a free society, no workers, including those in government, should be forced to accept terms of employment dictated by government officials, who have been known to be fallible at times.

Now, about the nurses' contention that Los Angeles County officials are racist, sexist and foolish.

It does seem foolish for the conservative majority on the county Board of Supervisors to offer no better than average wages and job conditions to attract more nurses. Everyone agrees that there is a critical shortage of nurses nationwide, and especially at County-USC Medical Center, the nation's largest acute-care hospital.

"The United States is facing the most serious nursing shortage in its history, and it is particularly acute in the Western states, including California," according to a just-released report from the respected Wyatt Co., an international pay and benefits consulting firm.

The executive in charge of Wyatt's Southern California division, James Finkelstein, sounded more like the striking nurses than an officer of a company whose clients include the Hospital Assn. of Southern California, which represents hospital management.

It makes little sense, he said, to require nurses to work longer and to hire less qualified people to fill vacancies because such moves are leading to a decline in the quality of hospital care.

"Ultimately," he concluded, "better pay and benefits, improved working conditions and a totally changed perception about the role of nursing is necessary to turn the situation around."

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