Nurses ratify union contract

Nearly 13 months after negotiations began, Enloe Medical Center’s registered nurses have a union contract whose details suggest the nurses were indeed more interested in improving working conditions than in increasing their wages.

On Thursday, Jan. 10, the negotiators for each side finally came to an agreement, and four days later the nurses voted overwhelmingly to ratify it. Following a year of difficult negotiations, representatives from both sides now say the contract is a product of mutual compromise and that it is time to move on with providing health care to the community.

The four-year contract includes the establishment of a nurse-elected professional practices committee (PPC) that should give nurses a greater voice in patient care, limits on mandatory overtime, improved educational leave and protections from “unjust discipline or termination,” according to a press release from the California Nurses Association, the union representing the nurses.

One of the biggest sticking points at the end was whether the union would operate as a closed or open shop. A closed shop would mean all registered nurses—there are about 450 at Enloe—would have to join the union and pay full union dues, about $41 per month. An open shop means nurses would have the choice of joining and paying dues or not joining yet still benefiting from the union contract rights.

The administration pushed for an open shop, while the union wanted a closed shop. An open shop historically weakens a union’s clout, as all employees benefit from the union presence but only some pay for it. The compromise reached at Enloe is called a modified open shop by the administration.

Under the agreement, the nurses have three choices: They can join the union and pay full dues; they can refuse to join the union and pay service fees, which means they pay all but the 10 percent of dues that goes to union political activity; or they can choose to not join and pay the equivalent in service fees to a charity of their choice.

Not joining means they may not participate on the PPC, serve on union committees or as a labor representatives or vote on union issues. The nurses have 30 days to decide. All new hires will have only the first two options.

The nurses will also receive a 16 percent salary increase allotted over the next three years. Starting pay for Enloe RNs is currently $19.76 an hour, while the highest-paid nurses make $26.68 per hour.

“This has been a long fight,” said nurse negotiator Paula Helmick. “We feel we’ve won a good agreement that gives us protection to fulfill our role as patient advocates, with a good economic package that will help recruit and retain RNs at Enloe.”

Helmick said she believes most will choose to join the union, noting that of the 255 who voted on the contract only 10 voted not to ratify.

Pam Sime, vice president of human resources and a member of the administration’s negotiating team, said the time it took to come to an agreement was not surprising nor was the process particularly rancorous.

“First-time contracts can take a year because you have to negotiate every sentence and word,” she said. “I felt negotiations were more respectful than some of the other situations I’ve negotiated in.

“We ended on a positive note because instead of the union putting on the table a ‘last best and final offer,’ we had a mutual agreement.”

In four years the sides will sit down again to hammer out a new contract.