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Unions want hospitals’ buyer to keep contracts

Empire Health Services officials are rebuffing union efforts to force a new buyer to adopt an existing contract, despite verbal assurances they would, organizers said Thursday.

The 2,700 employees of Deaconess Medical Center and other Empire affiliates have been told that they’ll retain their jobs, wages, seniority and some benefits after a pending sale to for-profit giant Community Health Systems Inc. of Franklin, Tenn.

The current three-year contract does not contain language binding new buyers to its terms, but union representatives said former Empire chief executive Jeff Nelson had agreed that would be part of any deal.

“We were promised a succession agreement in a public forum,” Chris Barton, spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union 1199NW, said Thursday.

Instead, Empire officials have indicated verbally and in writing that they will not negotiate a successorship agreement with the union. Bargaining that began three weeks ago is “getting sort of bogged down,” Barton said Thursday.

A representative for Empire said Thursday that she did not recall Nelson promising any succession arrangement, but declined further comment while negotiations were continuing.

“The place to discuss that is at the bargaining table, not in the media,” said spokeswoman Christine Varela.

Succession language is often a foundation of union contracts, along with grievance policies and seniority clauses. Barton said organizers negotiating the first union contract with Empire two years ago were not able to add that language to the contract.

“It’s a very difficult thing to get. Employers don’t want to have their hands tied,” Barton said. “Knowing now what we know, we should have fought harder.”

Union organizers want CHS to honor all stipulations of the current contract, she added.

Dozens of Empire employees and community supporters planned to hold a vigil outside Deaconess Thursday night to protest what Barton said were broken promises. It came on the heels of criticism earlier this week that Empire officials had backed away from an agreement made by Nelson and former spokeswoman Becky Swanson to provide vital health screenings through area churches.

“If they’re breaking promises to the workers and they’re breaking promises to the community, what’s next?” Barton said.

Empire officials announced Oct. 10 that they’d reached an agreement to sell the hospital system that includes Deaconess and Valley Hospital and Medical Center to CHS, the nation’s largest for-profit hospital system.

No sales terms have been divulged and CHS has yet to file documents required by Washington state to convert a nonprofit hospital system to a for-profit entity. The deal must be reviewed by the state Attorney General’s Office and approved by the state Department of Health to go forward.

CHS, which operates more than 130 hospitals in 28 states, posted revenues of $4.4 billion in 2006. At the end of last year, they had 27,000 full-time employees and 12,000 part-time workers, federal documents showed. About 2,000 of those employees are union members.

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