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Nurses Set for 1-Day Strike

The action today at Long Beach Memorial comes as labor unions continue to press organizing efforts in the Southland.

October 23, 2002|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

Some 1,300 registered nurses at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center are set to strike today in the largest such job action in California in more than four years.

In response, the hospital's management has vowed to block the nurses from returning to work as planned on Thursday. The standoff underscores the acrimony that has come to define labor relations at some of the largest hospitals in Los Angeles County.

Emboldened by a nationwide shortage that is especially pronounced here, nurses are showing that there is a tough side to this caring profession.

With nursing unions firmly established in Northern California, organizers have set their sites on Los Angeles County, where opportunities are more plentiful.

"It's really quite simple," said Jim Lott, executive vice president of the Healthcare Assn. of Southern California, a hospital trade group. "Organized labor is going where the opportunities are. I think we've seen steady momentum in this direction over the last five years in Southern California. It just seems like it's all coming to a head right now."

The nurses' labor actions come after more than a decade of dramatic change in the health-care industry, primarily wrought by managed care. Patients have been coming into hospitals sicker, leaving more quickly and straining the thinning ranks of bedside nurses.

Many nurses have left hospitals for less demanding jobs in other clinical or research settings, or left the profession.

Of those who remain, an increasing number are taking a stand--not just for themselves, they say, but for their patients.

"I love being a nurse. It's not a job -- It's who I am," said Margie Keenan, 53, who works at Long Beach Memorial.

"I feel like it's destroying our profession -- this pushing and pushing and making people work harder.... We have to put our foot down and say this is what it takes to take care of patients the right way."

Until recently, union activity had been concentrated in smaller hospitals in Southern California -- but now it is spreading to the largest facilities.

About 1,700 registered nurses at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the largest nonprofit hospital on the West Coast, will vote in December on whether to join the California Nurses Assn.

The rival Service Employees International Union recently won the right to represent nurses at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank and Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center in Pomona. Both hospitals, among the 10 largest private facilities in Los Angeles County, are refusing to recognize the unions without a fight.

"A lot of nurses that have traditionally ... been timid and shy about speaking up ... have now suffered to the point where they're willing to do something about it," said Dan Bachar, 44, a surgical nurse at Cedars.

Although Cedars claims to be the best hospital in the region, Bachar said, the hospital's salary and benefits package leave something to be desired. "If you want the best, why not pay the best?"

Cedars officials say that their pay ranks in the top tier of local hospitals, and that their nurse staffing levels exceed the minimum standards recently proposed by the state.

"The health care industry and health care providers, in particular, are under tremendous pressure," said Jeanne Flores, a hospital senior vice president. "It's understandable in some sense that there is some frustration on the part of staff.... I think they've been misled into thinking that a third party can do something that we can't do on our own."

Long Beach has been the site of a nasty tug of war between labor and management for three years. In February 2000, nurses voted 591 to 581 against joining the CNA. Nineteen months later, the nurses voted 630 to 523 in favor of the union.

Topping the list of unresolved issues is nurses' demand for a new pension program, followed by better staffing levels and pay increases for veteran nurses.

A mediator was unable to bridge the differences, prompting the union to call for today's one-day strike.

"There's no question that this strike will hurt us," said Dr. Gainer Pillsbury, medical director at Long Beach Memorial. "But at the same time, we cannot mortgage the future by signing a blank check and agree to a [pension] plan that we can't even evaluate ahead of time."

The hospital said it will spend $1 million to $2 million to hire temporary nurses from U.S. Nursing Corp., which specializes in finding replacements for striking workers. Because the hospital agreed to hire the temporary nurses for a minimum of five days, Pillsbury said, officials will not allow the striking nurses to return to work until Monday even if they want to.

The nurses' union compares the action to the Pacific Maritime Assn.'s recent lockout of port workers in Long Beach and along the West Coast because of a contract impasse.

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