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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Union, Hospitals Pin Their Hopes on Mediator

Labor: Nurses at St. John's medical centers in Oxnard and Camarillo say if a contract isn't negotiated within 10 days, they will consider a strike.

November 11, 2000|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the threat of a strike looming, negotiators for a nurses union and two Ventura County hospitals will meet with a federal mediator Wednesday to attempt to hammer out a first-ever labor contract.

Both sides say they are optimistic that the mediator will calm tensions and help prevent a strike at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard and St. John's Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo.

Nurses voted this week to authorize a strike, but agreed to give the union's bargaining team 10 more days to reach an agreement with administrators.

"After 27 sessions of the union and the management going nowhere, I'm hopeful that the federal mediator added to the mix can be a catalyst for real, hard-core negotiations," said Lisa Fabian, a 10-year nursing veteran and a member of the negotiating team.

Hospital spokeswoman Rita O'Connor said administrators do not want a strike and are looking forward to working with the mediator.

"We are anxious to try and bring resolution to the various issues on the table," O'Connor said. "We are committed to continuing to negotiate on issues of wages, benefits and working conditions."

Meanwhile, hospital administrators have taken out a full-page newspaper advertisement saying a strike would be reckless and irresponsible. The ad criticizes the union for "waging a campaign against the hospital, attacking our mission and threatening our ability to provide quality patient care."

The union and the administration began negotiations in March, but have failed to agree on any of the major issues, such as patient ratios, pay and benefits. Fabian said the nurses are serious about wanting a contract and many are willing to walk off the job to get it. Ninety-eight percent of the unionized nurses voted to authorize the strike after 10 days, Fabian said. A majority of the 530 nurses employed at both hospitals voted early this year to join the Service Employees International Union.

If there is no progress by Nov. 20, the nurses' bargaining team will decide whether to call for a strike or to weigh their options again in a second vote. If they call for a strike, the nurses would then give the hospital the mandated 10-day notice and likely would walk off their jobs at the beginning of December.

At issue are better pay rates for nurses, which they say are $3 to $5 less per hour than other hospitals around the county. The pay gap, nurses say, has contributed to a shortage requiring nurses to work with too many patients and work too many overtime hours.

The nurses are concerned about being transferred to duties they are not trained to do and object to the hospital hiring temporary nurses for full-time slots. Nurses also believe they should play a larger role in developing hospital policy.

The nursing staff is not large enough to handle current patient loads, union supporters say.

"St. John's seems to think this is just about money," said Susan Franks, who has been a nurse for seven years. "It's about being able to provide safe and quality patient care."

Jane Chambers, who has been a nurse for 31 years and has worked for St. John's for 11 years, said she agrees that salaries should be increased and benefits expanded. But she doesn't think the union should be so quick to leave the bargaining table.

"Striking is terrible," said Chambers, who did not join the union. "There are other ways of getting things done than striking."

Hospital administrators blame a nationwide nursing shortage for the extra burden placed on staffers and the use of temporary nurses. Spokeswoman O'Connor said the hospital has presented several generous proposals, including $1.2 million in salary increases, and administrators are frustrated that the nurses have been unwilling to accept their offers.

O'Connor said she believes the union is trying to organize other workers in both hospitals, and is trying to discredit St. John's.

If there is a strike, O'Connor said the hospitals have a contingency plan in place and will stay open. The strike would come at a critical time for health officials, who are already bracing themselves for a flu season that may hit before vaccinations are widely available.

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Times staff writer Tina Dirmann contributed to this story.

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