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Catholic Healthcare West, Union Reach Accords

Labor: Agreements result from one of the biggest organizing drives of private-sector health workers in the state.

April 26, 2002|DON LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After several years of often-contentious organizing and negotiations, the Service Employees International Union has reached labor contract agreements with Catholic Healthcare West that cover 9,000 workers at 20 hospitals in California.

The settlement, which is to be announced today, is the culmination of one of the biggest organizing drives of private-sector health workers in the state. And it comes after a tough campaign that at one point sparked debate among the national clergy about the Catholic church's role in labor disputes.

The contracts, which must be ratified by workers, would provide an overall wage and benefit increase of 10% annually for the two-year life of the agreement. The union said that the pay increases would range from 14% to 28% over two years and that all regular workers would receive new medical insurance fully paid by the employer.

The workers covered include registered and licensed vocational nurses, respiratory therapists and food service workers at nine hospitals in Northern California and 11 in Southern California, including Northridge Hospital Medical Center and St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach.

The contracts would establish joint union-management committees to work out staffing issues, which have been a contentious matter at many hospitals as they have grappled with a worsening shortage of nurses. If the committees cannot agree, the issue would go to binding arbitration.

"It means I have a voice," said Ingela Dahlgren, a registered nurse at Northridge Hospital who was a member of the bargaining team. She said she believed these joint committees would ultimately lead to improved patient care, by helping address the high turnover and shortages that sometimes have led to a nurse's overseeing as many as 14 patients at one time.

Amid such conditions, the SEIU and the California Nurses' Assn. have aggressively stepped up their organizing drives in recent years. SEIU officials called the settlement with Catholic Healthcare West a breakthrough that would help them in ongoing organizing efforts at other hospitals in the state. Although employees at Kaiser Permanente and public health workers are unionized, most in the private sector are not.

"It's a remarkable first contract," said Lisa Hubbard, a spokeswoman for the SEIU.

Mark Klein, a spokesman for Catholic Healthcare West, the state's largest not-for-profit hospital system in California, with 38 medical centers, said that the contract settlement was in the best interest of employees and patients. He declined to comment about the terms of the agreement or how the labor contracts would affect the finances of Catholic Healthcare West.

Based in San Francisco, Catholic Healthcare West is in the middle of a three-year restructuring plan after coming under significant financial stress. Over the last decade, many hospitals have been struggling with dramatic cuts in government reimbursements and pressure from health insurers as well as work force shortages and the swelling number of uninsured.

The contract settlements conclude an organizing campaign that early on was rife with allegations that managers at three Catholic hospitals were using religious authority to dissuade workers from joining a union.

The allegations ignited a spirited debate among church activists and labor supporters. Two of the three hospitals--St. Francis in Lynwood and Robert F. Kennedy in Hawthorne--are no longer part of Catholic Healthcare West.

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