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Countywide Strike On as Last-Minute Talks Fail

Labor: Negotiations to resume at noon, but 40,000 workers will strike anyway, though judge bars nurses from walking out. Tuesday's rolling actions paralyze four public hospitals.

October 11, 2000|NICHOLAS RICCARDI and JOE MATHEWS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

More than 40,000 Los Angeles County service workers plan to walk off the job today after eleventh-hour negotiations between their union and county officials failed to avert a strike that will disrupt services to many of the region's neediest residents.

The talks between Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union and county officials broke off Sept. 29 but resumed early Tuesday evening after the workers' sixth day of rolling walkouts paralyzed critical components of the public health system. The resumption was possible because the Board of Supervisors abandoned its policy of not meeting with union representatives while walkouts were occurring.

The prospect of a general strike by health workers was headed off Tuesday afternoon, when a judge ordered nurses and lab technicians at public hospitals to stay on the job as the walkout spreads throughout the county today.

However, because the judicial order covers only about 5,000 workers, it will not prevent severe disruptions of service at welfare and child support offices, as well as at libraries and such county offices as the registrar-recorder's, the assessor's and the treasurer-tax collector's, as well as the Probation Department.

The decision to resume talks after nearly two weeks of silence came after the board met in executive session to discuss the strike. By that time, Tuesday's installment of the rolling walkouts had crippled key operations at four public hospitals--including County-USC Medical Center, the linchpin of the region's trauma network.

"Once you thought it through, with the impact of a countywide strike, it's important to continue negotiations," Supervisor Don Knabe said.

But about 8 p.m., when the talks finally got underway at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport, the complexities of dealing with Local 660's 19 different bargaining units and the county's determination not to budge from its salary offer quickly set the stage for today's strike.

Throughout the evening, in fact, union spokesmen repeated that today's strike was a certainty--unless the county gave the union a tangible reason to call it off. "We haven't changed any of our plans," union spokesman Mark Tarnowsky said.

The county has offered a 9% raise over three years, already accepted by several other county unions, But Local 660 is pushing for a 15.5% three-year boost for its 47,000 members, 60% of whom make $32,000 or less.

Tuesday's bargaining session broke off shortly before 10:30 p.m. and talks are set to resume at noon today.

Earlier Tuesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra I. Janavs granted the county's request for a temporary restraining order preventing hospital employees from leaving their posts today.

Included in the order are registered nurses, lab technicians and other related health workers. Pharmacists and licensed vocational nurses are not covered, nor are recently unionized doctors. The latter have joined nurses on picket lines during the week of single-day, rolling strikes to protest what they call poor patient care and their own contract dispute with the county.

The judge agreed to issue the order after attorneys for the county said the public health system was imperiled. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center's emergency room closed during the rolling strike last week and three trauma centers were shuttered one day apiece during the week.

"Any disruption of emergency services provided by the county hospitals or the temporary removal of these resources . . . will have a profound adverse impact upon the provision of emergency services, particularly in the inner-city areas of the city of Los Angeles," wrote Virginia Hastings, the county's director of emergency medical services, in a declaration filed with the judge.

The county's chief administrative officer, David Janssen, said he was "relieved" at "having the court order 5,000 of our employees to work in the health area."

Local 660 lawyers had argued that their medical workers had a legal right to strike under recent state law. Tarnowsky, the union's spokesman, said that Local 660 would honor the ruling but that "the strike is going to be effective" nonetheless.

The union and county agreed to set up a hotline to alert workers about the order during the night and morning. Janavs set an Oct. 31 hearing for further argument, and Local 660 is considering an appeal.

The flurry of activity came as four hospitals--County-USC, Rancho Los Amigos, Olive View and High Desert--and more than a dozen clinics were paralyzed by the rolling strike. More than half their staff members walked off the job Tuesday, creating several surreal scenes.

As word of the strike has circulated, patients have stayed away from county hospitals. County-USC normally has about 720 inpatients, but had only 425 Tuesday. Its normally crammed emergency room was virtually empty.

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