High noon at Enloe?

While Enloe Medical Center nurses handed out information this week about a new nurse-patient staffing law going into effect at the beginning of the year, a California Nurses Association representative said that, if a contract can’t be reached within the next two bargaining sessions, a one-day strike could be called in January.

The statewide effort to get out information on the new law was put in motion by the California Nurses Association, the union voted in last year by a majority of Enloe’s registered nurses to help create a work contract with the hospital’s administration.

The law directs the state Department of Health Services to establish a “safe” nurse-to-patient ratio within each hospital department. Both the CNA, which pushed for the law, and the Enloe administration have complained that less than a month before the law is to go into effect, the DHS has given no details for its implementation.

Though the effort by CNA to get out the information on the new law and the ongoing contract negotiations would appear to be two separate issues, both sides agree that they are in fact inextricably linked.

“The leafleting is not a union issue,” said Ann Prater, director of Enloe’s public relations. “[But] it is blitz statewide by the CNA, which is trying to create a bigger name for itself.”

The campaign to bring in a union at Enloe proved bitter and divisive as each side fought for public support. Part of the reason cited by the nurses for the need for union representation is what they term a dangerous overload of patients per nurse. The administration say tough nursing conditions stem in part from a nationwide shortage of nurses. The nurses counter that the shortage exists because many in their profession have been driven away by poor working conditions.

“The legislation is a done deal,” said Prater. “The DHS is charged with implementing the law, but they have been pitifully slow with details. The truth is, you can’t simply impose a numerical quota to address patient needs. We already do have very good staffing standards here.”

Efforts to reach a contract will mark a one-year anniversary Dec. 19, and there are still a number of issues left unresolved, chief among them whether to have an open or closed union shop. An open shop, which the administration favors, means nurses are not required to pay union dues, though they would still realize the benefits of the union contract. A closed shop, favored by the pro-union nurses and the CNA, means all the nurses would pay union dues, even if they voted against union representation.

“We have meetings set for the 18th and 19th [of December], and we are coming down to the final issues,” said CNA spokesperson Pete Castelli. “We’re holding out on certain issues. If no agreement is reached by the first of the year, we will weigh our options and take them before the nurses to see whether there will be a strike.”

CNA condones only one-day strikes, but Enloe could counter with a lockout, something the nurses would just as soon avoid.

“We’re not hammering for more money,” Castelli said. “It’s just standard, first-contract stuff. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Pam Sime is vice president of human resources and the administration’s spokesperson on bargaining issues.

“We have a lot of issues on the table,” she said, “and the goal for the meetings of the 18th and 19th is to take care of the ones where philosophically we are on the same page so that going into January we can focus on the major issues.”

Those major issues, she said, include “open and closed shops, mandatory overtime and wages.”

She said she remains “optimistic that we will be able to reach a resolution.”

Paula Helmick, who serves on the nurses’ bargaining team, has been a nurse for 27 years, the last 17 at Enloe. “Most of it is not financial,” she said of the issues yet to be resolved. “We just want a voice in our workplace.”

She, too, said the question of an open or closed shop was a major point of contention between the two sides, but not the only one.

“I think [the administration] would really like to isolate the union shop and make it look like that’s the only issue out there,” she suggested.

Still, having a closed shop, she said, is important for the nurses and the only fair way to go. “When President Bush got elected, that didn’t mean those who voted against him didn’t have to pay taxes,” she said. “This is a democratic society, where the majority rules, and the majority ruled at Enloe. We’re trying to draw nurses here, and we need to make Enloe an attractive place to work again if we’re going to do so.”

She said her side would do all it can to avoid a strike, “except for giving in on everything.”

"They have already hired back-up nurses who are ready if there is a strike. How do you think that makes us feel?"