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Pickets target hospital company

Owner of Valley Hospital, Deaconess unfair, union says

Unionized employees are holding informational pickets critical of Deaconess Medical Center and Valley Hospital and Medical Center.

They accuse the new owner of the hospitals of cutting retirement benefits, raising the cost of medical insurance premiums, and refusing to put forth a best effort to sign a contract.

The employees also say Community Health Systems Inc. has engaged in a thinly veiled union-busting campaign.

Community Health said it will not discuss details of the negotiations nor “various tactics designed to attract media attention.”

Based in Franklin, Tenn., Community Health is the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain. It paid $156 million for the hospitals last year, winning approval for the buyout after making the case along with former owners that the hospitals were in dire financial shape and could close or slash services.

The union, representing about 1,200 employees at the two hospitals, said Community Health has not attempted to bargain a fair contract and has not divulged enough details of its benefits plans – especially the costs of its self-insured medical plan.

The two sides did agree to a pay raise for the unionized registered nurses at Valley Hospital that are akin to the 8.6 percent average wage increase given to non-unionized registered nurses at Deaconess. The move was done outside the contract.

Chris Barton, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union 1199NW, said the picket is designed to tell the Spokane community that the new hospital owner is not living up to the promises it made to work with unions on a fair contract for employees.

Instead, she said Community Health distributed a memo telling employees how to break their union. Enough nurses at Valley have signed a petition to call for a union decertification vote. The union has blocked the effort with a series of unfair labor complaints now on file with the National Labor Relations Board. A similar effort by nurses to disband their unit at Deaconess succeeded last year.

The picket is not a strike, Barton stressed, and that the union employees are encouraging patients and visitors to come to the hospital. The pickets will begin at 11 a.m. A 4 p.m. rally is planned at Deaconess.

The union also is upset with the layoffs of 90 employees at Deaconess without the hospital providing the details to back up its claim that the recession and fewer patients are driving the job losses.

Hospital executives have declined requests from The Spokesman-Review to disclose their financial performance for 2008 or the first quarter of 2009. The hospital also has declined to report its patient count, saying that as a for profit corporation it does not break out the performance of its individual properties.

All other hospitals in the state submit their quarterly financials and patient statistics to the Washington State Department of Health.

As a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange, CHS does submit overall financial results to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The company reported corporate profits of $218.3 million in 2008. Its 2009 first-quarter earnings will be released on Friday.

In a statement released Wednesday, the company wrote:

“It is our sincere desire that the SEIU would focus its attention on discussions at the bargaining table so that productive negotiations can continue. The hospitals remain committed to good-faith bargaining and we hope mutually acceptable agreements will be reached soon.”

The sides bargained briefly Tuesday and Wednesday, Barton said.