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Unions Continue Heated Dispute With Alta Bates Medical Center

By Jakob Schiller
Friday June 11, 2004

Ninety percent of 800 workers who voted at the Alta Bates Summit Medical center rejected a recent contract offer by the hospital late last week, locking the two sides back into heated negotiations that have been ongoing since before the workers’ contract expired at the end of May. 

On Wednesday that battle escalated when the union, the Oakland-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 250, notified Alta Bates Summit that they filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court charging the hospital with assault, battery and false arrest of a union organizer and assault on an employee during incidents related to union organizing.  

A federal mediator also stepped in after a Wednesday bargaining session did not create any progress between the two sides.  

According to the union, employees rejected the most recent contract offer by the hospital because it did not acknowledge two of their primary demands. Those demands include equal employee participation in the decision process that sets hospital staffing levels and the establishment of a permanent employee training and education fund. 

Alta Bates Summit defended their offer, calling it “better than that accepted at a number of local hospitals” that recently re-negotiated contracts with Local 250. 

Among Alta Bates Summit’s offers were wage increases for licensed vocational nurses and tuition reimbursement for employees who want to take classes that will allow them to apply for more advanced positions in the hospital.  

“You want to do everything you can to promote and recognize [the workers],” said Carolyn Kemp, spokesperson for Alta Bates Summit. 

Organizers for Local 250 and workers at Alta Bates Summit said while the offer looks good on paper, it does not address several other important issues and contrary to the hospital’s claim, is inferior to contracts accepted by other hospitals. Of particular concern was the demand for equal representation during the staff ratio decision process, which union representatives said was necessary to ensure that employee’s patient loads do not get out of hand.  

“The people who actually work with the patient have a good understanding of what is required to take care of patients,” said Shayne Silva, a psychiatric technician at the Alta Bates Herrick campus. “It seems to me that logically they would be included in the decision.” 

Hospital spokesperson Kemp countered by saying that the current staffing level system is “working well.” 

Local 250 is also contesting the offer made by the hospital concerning tuition reimbursement funds. They say the contract they recently signed with CHW is better and want Alta Bates to agree to the same. The Catholic Healthcare West contract will establish a permanent training fund into which the hospital will put $4 million, allowing for up to $3,000 for tuition reimbursement for each employment. Local 250 said CHW also agreed to give employees 16 hours paid time off each year to attend class.   

Although Alta Bates Summit acknowledges the need for employees to move up, they are not taking drastic enough steps to ensure the hospital can fill empty positions, said union representatives,  

According to Sal Rosselli, Local 250 president, Alta Bates Summit has a high number of traveling employees that temporarily fill their open positions. According to a SEIU study, temporary positions place financial burdens on hospitals because traveling employees are often paid more than permanent employees. Traveling employees also result in inferior care, they said, because employees don’t have the chance to form experienced teams. 

For the union, the current organizing drive also reaches beyond Alta Bates Summit. Their fight, they said, is part of an ongoing battle with Sutter Health, the Northern California health care giant that runs a network of 26 hospitals, including Alta-Bates Summit. 

Even though negotiations have been taking place between Alta Bates Summit and Local 250, organizers at Local 250 said they are trying to get the same standards for all health care workers under the auspicious of Sutter. Unlike the Sutter system, where hospitals negotiate their own contracts, Local 250 representatives said their recent contract with CHW covered 28 of the hospitals administered by CHW throughout the west.  

Both sides disagree about where the lines are drawn concerning Sutter. Sutter maintains that they are a not-for-profit network set up to facilitate cooperation between hospitals at a time when many hospitals are struggling. 

“One of the key differentiating factors between Sutter Health and other networks is their affiliates retain their decision making autonomy,” said Bill Gleesen, a spokesperson for Sutter. 

Local 250 president Sal Rosselli calls Sutter’s not-for-profit classification a “shell game,” pointing to the company’s healthy profit margin and dozens of for-profit subsidiaries. According to an article in the East Bay Business times, Sutter reported earnings of $465 million and an operating profit margin of seven percent for 2003. 

While Sutter operates under the auspices of a network, said Rosselli, they are viewed by the union as another large-scale health care conglomerate with an interest in making money. 

“Sutter has no interest in working with their caregivers in providing patient care,” said Rosselli. “They have all interest in expanding their corporation and gaining market share so they can eliminate competition, overcharge the insured and in every predatory way go after the people who can’t pay their bills.”  

Union organizers point out that when Sutter secures certain contracts, such as their former contract with the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS, they act as one entity. 

The next bargaining session is June 24.