March 12, 2009 in City

Hospital union prepared to picket

Workers, Community Health in fight over contract
By The Spokesman-Review
 

A union representing 1,100 health care and service workers is engaged in a contract fight with the new owner of Deaconess Medical Center and Valley Hospital and Medical Center.

Community Health Systems Inc. bought the hospitals less than six months ago. In five months, the two have made little progress in labor relations.

Workers authorized an informational picket that could be set up later this month, said Chris Barton, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union 199 NW.

“Community Health made promises to the employees and to the community that it would boost the hospitals and keep employees with competitive pay and benefits,” Barton said. “Now their message is, ‘You should be happy to have a job.’ ”

Registered nurses at Valley were offered a 10 percent pay increase, but turned down the offer because of shaved medical and retirement benefits. Technical and service workers at the two hospitals rejected a wage freeze and similar benefit reductions, she said.

The hospitals, through spokeswoman Christine Varela, issued a statement expressing disappointment that the union canceled an upcoming bargaining session and has threatened a picket.

The hospitals declined to discuss details of the bargaining sessions, but indicated each hoped to reach agreements soon to replace contracts that expired Dec. 31, 2008.

SEIU is the state’s largest health care union with deep state and regional political connections. Community Health Systems Inc. is the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain, a Tennessee-based company that earned support for its purchase of the two hospitals with a $100 million pledge to upgrade buildings and technology, and a belief that its size and business savvy could help Deaconess co-exist with Providence Health Care.

Community Health has already spent about $11 million – much of it on new patient beds and monitors.

SEIU has had a difficult history with the hospitals, which had been largely union-free until financial turmoil, layoffs, management upheaval and across-the-board pay cuts led to successful organizing drives several years ago.

But the union could never build a strong consensus among the registered nurses at Deaconess, who last summer voted to leave the union.

John Stucke can be reached at (509) 459-5419 or johnst@spokesman.com.

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