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Valley Hospital to lock out strikers for two days

Nurses and other medical workers with SEIU 1199NW local march outside Valley Hospital on Wednesday during a one-day strike. (Jesse Tinsley)
Nurses and other medical workers with SEIU 1199NW local march outside Valley Hospital on Wednesday during a one-day strike. (Jesse Tinsley)

Valley Hospital announced a two-day lockout of striking nurses and technical workers Wednesday following the launch of an unprecedented one-day strike at Spokane hospitals owned by Community Health Systems Inc.

The workers responded by announcing their intention to return to work this morning, setting up a potential showdown with hospital administrators.

Striking health care workers and service employees at Deaconess Hospital will return to work this morning.

Valley Hospital spokeswoman Sasha Weiler said executives were forced to hire replacement workers on 72-hour contracts to keep the hospital open during the strike and are simply fulfilling that short-term obligation to temporary workers. The replacement workers were bused to the hospitals from around the region. Some Kootenai Health workers moonlighted as replacement workers. The hospitals also brought in teams from around the country.

Deaconess and Valley Hospital are owned by Community Health Systems, a for-profit hospital chain based in Tennessee.

Teri Nicholson, a registered nurse at Valley on the union bargaining team, said she wasn’t surprised by the hospital’s move.

“It’s another way for the hospitals to punish employees who care enough about our hospital and patients to stand up against unsafe staffing levels,” she said.

The 1,100 members of Service Employees International Union 1199NW have asked the hospitals to bolster staffing, saying cutbacks are putting patient care and comfort in jeopardy.

The hospitals say staffing is appropriate and claim the labor action is related to a push for higher wages, including a demand for 5 percent annual pay raises for three years.

The strike unfolded during Wednesday’s bitterly cold dawn as dozens of members of SEIU 1199NW picketed the hospitals, urging CHS to boost staffing levels.

While dozens of strikers showed up, dozens of other union members crossed the picket lines and went to work – underscoring the difficulty SEIU has had in binding all members of its bargaining unit to a common labor cause. Five years ago, registered nurses at Deaconess voted to decertify their union and end their affiliation with SEIU.

The hospitals hired extra security guards, but there were no dustups reported along the picket lines or in the hospitals.

The strike also comes during a sensitive time for the hospitals. Health insurance reforms are accompanied by financial uncertainties, and competitor Providence Health Care continues an aggressive growth strategy of buying physician practices and building a $60 million clinic across Interstate 90 from Valley Hospital.

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