Nursing disagreements

Enloe’s nurses take their complaints about stalled contract negotiations to the streets

SIGNS OF THE TIMES About 200 Enloe Medical Center staff RNs—many of them on their breaks—held picket signs Monday evening to complain about 10 months’ worth of negotiations that still haven’t produced a contract.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES About 200 Enloe Medical Center staff RNs—many of them on their breaks—held picket signs Monday evening to complain about 10 months’ worth of negotiations that still haven’t produced a contract.

photo by Tom Angel

Small potatoes? Staff RNs at Enloe Medical Center start out at $19.76 per hour, and have a top hourly wage of $28.68. The 6.5 percent raise offered by hospital administration would raise the hourly wage range to $21.04 (at the low end) and $28.41 (at the high end). RNs are paid $1.50 an hour extra for working nights and $2.75 an hour extra for working weekends.

A section of The Esplanade was lined with dozens of Enloe Medical Center nurses Oct. 22. They held brightly colored signs and waved at drivers in an effort to get the public behind their contention that the hospital administration is stalling in contract negotiations.

And, at least Monday evening, it seemed to work. Most of the drivers passing the block-long picket line honked and waved at the picketers, and some even shouted encouragement at them.

“Go get ’em, nurses!” yelled one man, driving his mini-van past the line.

While holding signs with slogans like “Supporting RNs supports patients,” “Quality care deserves a quality contract” and “Enloe: Stop stalling,” the nurses (picket organizers estimated that about 200 people were there) chanted union slogans. They were loud enough to get the attention of many of those in patient rooms at the front of the hospital—as the crowd grew, many of the patients opened their drapes and could be seen watching the picketing, along with their nurses.

But, while it was clear that the demonstration got the public’s attention, union organizers quietly admitted that they wondered how the picket would affect contract negotiations scheduled for Tuesday.

The union members have been complaining for months that the hospital administration isn’t taking their demands seriously.

Chief among those demands are freedom from mandatory overtime; a union shop (which would require all RNs to pay union dues, regardless of their union support, on the logic that everyone benefits from the union’s work); a nurses-only professional-practice committee that would meet to discuss hospital staffing and patient care; and an 8 percent raise.

Paula Helmick, an Intensive Care Unit RN who sits on the union’s contract negotiating team, also contends that the hospital has dragged its feet in the negotiations. The negotiations started last December, right after the nurses voted to enlist union support in contract negotiations. California Nurses Association now represents the hospital’s staff RNs, which make up about 22 percent of the nursing staff at Enloe, including charge nurses, LVNs and nurses’ assistants.

“We’re not asking for the world here,” Helmick said. “It’s shocking to us that with the current nursing shortage that Enloe is treating the nurses like this. … This really shows that Enloe does not intend to negotiate a fair contract with us.”

But Pam Sime, Enloe’s vice president for human resources, downplayed the complaints of stalling. Sime also sits on the hospital’s contract negotiations team and said that the hospital has been “very fair” in its contract offers. She said that the three negotiations that were scheduled in September were especially productive.

“From [Enloe’s] perspective, we’re moving along at a very good pace,” Sime said. “You have to remember that this is the first contract, and we’re working with a blank page. … We have to write everything from scratch, and that takes time.”

Sime said the hospital countered the union’s request for an 8 percent raise with an offer of 7 percent, and that offer is still on the table. She said that the main contract sticking points are the organization of a union shop (the hospital wants the union to be optional for staff nurses, but the nurses claim that’s an attempt to keep the union weak), overtime, and the membership of a professional-practices committee (the hospital has agreed to a nurses-only group, as long as committee members are off the clock for meetings—which the nurses say “gives them the vehicle, without the gas.")

Sime admitted that there are still wide differences in the union’s and hospital’s ideas of a “fair contract” but said she’s optimistic that a contract will soon be finalized. She added that when negotiations started, both sides agreed that it would take a year or so to hammer out a contract. Sime said she didn’t know what to make of the picket.

“This is something that CNA does with all of the negotiations they’ve been involved with,” she said. “I think it’s part of the process.”

But Pete Castelli, a union representative who sits on the contract negotiating team, said working out a contract with the hospital has been a lot more contentious than Sime admitted to. He maintained that the union is asking for “boiler plate stuff” that almost all of the contracts he’s negotiated include.

“I think that’s what’s been so difficult about this,” Castelli said. “This is just the basic stuff that these nurses deserve.”

He added that that’s why the union “felt compelled” to have a picket.

“We wanted the hospital to see how many people we have behind us," he said, gesturing at the line of picketers on the street. "They can’t ignore this."