Nurses: It won’t be pretty

Contract negotiations have just begun, but nurses’ union members are already calling on the public to send a message to Enloe Medical Center.

“[Enloe] will have issues with almost everything we propose,” predicted David Welch, an Enloe nurse and local representative for the California Nurses Association. The CNA is mobilizing nurses and bracing for a fight. “This is going to be a very difficult contract to resolve.”

In contrast, Enloe spokesperson Ann Prater said, “Our hope is that it’s not contentious. We certainly are going to hope for the best.”

Beginning last weekend, nurses took to locations including the Saturday Farmers’ Market and the Utah Phillips concert at a Chico church asking for community support of a wording change in the contract they first negotiated four years ago, after voting to be represented by the CNA.

The nurses, who were asked by farmers’ market officials to stand at the market’s entrance rather than walk the aisles, collected signatures on a petition addressed to Dan Neumeister, the new chief executive officer of the nonprofit hospital.

The petition asks that a section of the contract dealing with disciplinary action against workers be changed to state that discipline will take place with “just cause” rather than “reasonable cause.” Welch said the existing wording was a compromise reached in 2002 after Enloe proposed simply the word “cause.”

“At first glance it would seem to be a small, technical item,” Welch said, but with more court cases, arbitrators and industry guidelines backing up the “just cause” definition, “it really is a critical difference.” He added that “just cause” has become the standard language in most union contracts.

But Welch acknowledged that the petitioners’ presence is about much more than the “just cause” issue.

“This is just the first skirmish,” he said.

The sides first met on Nov. 15, and Enloe now has all of the union’s proposals, except for wages and how many years the contract would be good for, said Carol Linscheid, Enloe’s vice president of human resources. They’ll meet again Dec. 13, and the goal is to get a contract hammered out before the current one expires on Jan. 14.

“I think it’s going to be real hard to wrap it up by January,” said Welch, who is also a member of the bargaining team.

Linscheid said it’s so early in the process, “We haven’t said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to anything they’ve proposed yet.” (Some petitioners told passersby that the only thing Enloe had refused to consider was the “just cause” language.)

She said Enloe asked the union for clarification of some items, including the “just cause” issue, and is also figuring out how much the various proposals would cost the hospital in dollars.

“We’ve got lots of dates scheduled to meet,” Linscheid said. “We’re hoping for a positive outcome.”

Last year, there was a “salary reopener” to the contract, which was resolved with nurse raises. Welch said pay will probably be the least contentious issue this time around, but some of the things the union is proposing would cost Enloe money.

The union is also targeting working conditions and what it calls “patient safety” issues, including the practice of having nurses “float” to areas of the hospital where they don’t feel competent, and what’s called “acuity staffing"—patient-nurse ratios based on the condition of the people needing care.

“Union rights” are also on the table. “[Enloe needs to] act like a unionized workplace,” Welch said, and let labor representatives meeting with nurses in the facility, use bulletin boards and be introduced to new employees.

Welch said that on a statewide level, the CNA plans to put its focus on promoting a singer-payer health care system. “That’s going to be our big political issue.”