Why SEIU is striking
Service workers at Enloe Medical Center who are planning to go out on a 24-hour strike Wednesday (Feb. 7) want the community to know that they are doing so only as a last resort.
The final straw, they say, was Enloe’s dismissal earlier this month of a large number of their union members, including several dozen certified nursing assistants (CNAs), without negotiating with the union first.
The Service Employees International Union has been locked in a bitter struggle with hospital administrators dating back to April 2004, when service workers narrowly voted to unionize. Enloe, claiming the election was flawed, has refused to negotiate a contract with the SEIU while the courts determine which side is right.
In January 2006, the National Labor Relations Board upheld the voting and demanded that the hospital “cease and desist” from refusing to recognize and bargain with the union. Enloe appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., which is expected to hear the case on Feb. 20.
“We’re just trying to enforce the law. This is an unfair-labor-practice strike,” said Pat Alvarez, a local organizer for the union. “Nobody’s job is safe, so we have to do the ultimate thing, which is withhold our labor. Shame on Enloe.”
Three union members—Barbara Garcia, a CNA with seven years’ experience; James Harro, a GI (gastrointestinal) technician with nine years at Enloe; and Cindy Smith, a unit secretary for 22 years—joined Alvarez in expressing their frustration with the medical center during an interview Tuesday (Jan. 30).
They are convinced that the CNA layoffs will hurt patient care. “It’s a no-brainer,” Harro said. “This is a hazard to our health.”
Fewer CNAs means fewer people checking on patients and watching for problems. “If there’s a problem, it might go unnoticed,” Garcia said. Smith agreed, saying, “I don’t know how often I’ve seen CNAs call attention to problems.”
Alvarez’s issue was the hospital’s refusal to work with the union to cut costs. When Mercy Hospital in Redding was faced with a similar need, she said, the CNAs “came up with creative ideas to save jobs—setting up a float pool, early retirement incentives, a freeze on hiring. … As a result, no CNA voluntarily lost their job.”
“We need Enloe to bargain,” Harro said. “We’ve earned the right to have a contract so we no longer have this dysfunctional relationship with our employer. We want to have a bond of respect with the hospital, not live in fear.”
Alvarez said she believed a “substantial number” of workers will stay home Wednesday. “This has been like a four-year fight. That election was like a war.”
“Lots of people who’ve been sitting on the fence are tired of being afraid,” Garcia added.
Laura Hennum, Enloe’s spokeswoman, said the hospital had put a “detailed strike plan” in place and that there would be “no interruption to essential services. Our highest priority is patient care, and we won’t be deterred from providing it.”
As for recognizing the union, Hennum said the hospital is “seeking legal clarity, just as they are” and is looking forward to the appeals court decision.