When the 330-member nurses union at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center staged two one-day strikes Sept. 15 and Oct. 23, union President Anne Clarke became the strikers' chief spokeswoman.
The Canoga Park resident, a nurse since 1953, took a firm stand against the hospital's owner, Santa Barbara-based Tenet Healthcare Corp. Tenet recently agreed to renew negotiations if the union canceled its strike, which it did. The union, the American Federation of Nurses, Service Employees International, Local 535, and Tenet are scheduled to meet tomorrow in Glendale.
Clarke, 66, a neonatal nurse who has worked at the Tarzana hospital for 24 years, spoke recently with Scott Holleran. Holleran, 33, is editorial director of Americans for Free Choice in Medicine, a nonprofit patient advocacy group based in Newport Beach.
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Holleran: What was the core idea behind the nurses' strike?
Clarke: To make us whole. We lost time-and-a-half, we gave money back graciously [agreed not to take raises], we did not strike and we never really recouped everything because we've been on a wage freeze for 5 1/2 years. The only people who received raises were fairly new to the hospital. Seventy-five percent of the nurses at Tarzana have been there for over 18 years. So the people who make the hospital work--and I'm not putting down people who have been there for less time--got nothing.
Holleran: What are your demands?
Clarke: An across-the-board 6% raise the first year and a 4% raise the second year. [The current system] divides people. We see it as a union-breaking issue. You immediately create problems between people with the current two-tiered system. The staff gets upset--which is exactly what [Tenet] wants. An across-the-board raise is fair.
Holleran: Whose decision was it to ask for an across-the-board raise?
Clarke: The entire bargaining team. The team represents the membership. We distribute surveys to union members and nonunion members a month ahead of negotiations. They're supposed to return the survey and, therefore, the bargaining issues are their issues.
Holleran: What percentage of surveys were returned?
Clarke: Probably 40%.
Holleran: Do union members vote to approve the terms?
Holleran: Doesn't Tenet have the right to reject an across-the-board raise and reward nurses based on merit?
Clarke: I see nothing wrong with merit-based pay, but that's not the way things work. I would rather see us all get the same raise and make less.
Holleran: What are the union's other demands?
Clarke: Staffing by a committee--on the table and tentatively agreed upon--which includes that the acuity system, which determines how many people staff a certain area, is determined by the level of a patient's care, not by volume. A safer needle system is also a big discussion on the table. The union opt-out issue is also very important.
Holleran: In other words, once a member of the union, a nurse can't leave the union while employed at [Encino-Tarzana]?
Clarke: Right. Tenet wants a 90-day opt-out period. We told them that we would absolutely never agree to that. We want to keep it a closed shop.
Holleran: Then newly hired employees will automatically become union members?
Clarke: No. New hires have the option to opt out of the union after 30 days. If the nurse doesn't put it in writing, he or she automatically becomes a union member.
Holleran: Are hospitals dominated by managed care, such as [Encino-Tarzana], better or worse than hospitals 45 years ago?
Clarke: That's the $64,000 question. I really don't have many good things to say about managed care. I don't know what is better, but we have to find something that works better because the patient suffers, and unless the patient has an advocate with him for 24 hours a day, the patient will continue to suffer.
Holleran: Doesn't Tenet deserve credit for Tarzana's top-rated NICU [neonatal intensive care unit]?
Clarke: I don't think you can thank Tenet for that. The NICU's always been one of the best because of the staff, the care and the management by physicians.
Holleran: Regarding Tenet's lockout of striking nurses: If nurses have the right to strike, why doesn't Tenet have the right to take those nurses off schedule?
Clarke: They do have that right.
Holleran: Then why did the union go to the National Labor Relations Board and file a complaint about the lockout?
Clarke: Because it may have been illegal. I totally understand why Tenet locked nurses out, because they had to allocate dollars to nurses. But if you really value the nurses that you have, why wouldn't you let them come back?
Holleran: Is the union membership prepared to go on strike indefinitely?
Clarke: Some of the membership is prepared, though I certainly don't think we have enough for that. There are a lot of problems with a strike, like a loss of money. There's no strike fund.
Holleran: How much are dues?