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Stalled contract talks prompt union workers to hold informational picket at Harrison
March 5, 2014 @ 2:59pm | Tim Kelly
There has never been a strike — and possibly never even the threat of one — by any of the union-represented groups of Harrison Medical Center employees, yet a disagreement over language relating to strikes is the primary reason for an impasse in contract negotiations with a group of nearly 800 employees.
Those workers in the “pro-tech” group — medical technicians and employees in a range of other hospital jobs — are represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21. Contract talks began last summer, and Harrison officials say they’ve agreed to wage increases and the union’s request for workers to keep their existing health care coverage instead of switching to the hospital’s plan that covers other employees.
The health plan extension with no premium increases was a major concession, Harrison marketing and communication director Jacquie Goodwill said. That’s also why the hospital changed its original three-year contract proposal to two years, she said.
When the proposed two-year term expires in mid-2015, Harrison’s affiliation with Franciscan Health System will be fully implemented and all employees’ pay and benefits will come through Franciscan and its parent company, Catholic Health Initiatives.
Union officials and workers have raised the question of possible Franciscan influence on this round of contract talks, which stalled in January after six months. Past contract negotiations with the pro-tech group have been mostly free of contentious issues.
UFCW spokesman Tom Geiger said what’s different this time is that Harrison wants language added to the contract that would prohibit any “sympathy strike” by pro-tech workers if another union-represented group at the hospital went on strike. The hospital’s proposed contract says any employee who refuses to cross picket lines to report to work “shall be subject to immediate dismissal.”
The UFCW also represents nurses and service workers at Harrison, although neither of those groups is in contract negotiations at this time.
Contracts for pro-tech workers have long had a no-strike clause, along with a stipulation that employees would not be disciplined or fired if they refuse to cross picket lines of another group’s legal strike.
“They have had that right for many years, and Harrison Hospital has never opposed that or tried to remove it,” Geiger said. “Now they have, and they have not given any real reason why.”
Harrison’s human resources director sent a Jan. 28 update to hospital employees on the “last and final offer” to the union. The notice said “Harrison had proposed the clause, which is common in the healthcare industry, to ensure that our patients receive safe, effective, and continuous care.”
The notice also said union negotiators did not schedule a vote on the proposal as Harrison requested, and kept open other contract issues on wages and benefits. However, the HR update said the union was willing to resolve all those issues “if Harrison dropped its proposal for a true no-strike clause that prevents work stoppages.”
Kay Gearllach, a Harrison emergency room technician, said union members are confused over why their employer is insisting on language banning sympathy strikes, since all union-represented workers already have no-strike clauses in their contracts.
“Who would we sympathy strike with?” she asked. “If we are without a contract, which we have been since September, we could strike. But it’s never been anything anybody has talked about until now.”
She added that Harrison management “let the contract lapse, because they were tied up with the affiliation. The union was ready to negotiate earlier.”
Goodwill said in an email to the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal that the strike language proposed for the pro-tech contract is the same as in the contract for Harrison nurses, as well as for UFCW workers at numerous other hospitals.
“The patient care environment is too critical and we feel that our patients will be at risk if the UFCW is allowed to strike,” she said. “This is a common clause in healthcare contracts,” and would provide the “labor peace guarantees” that Harrison is seeking.
“There’s always been labor peace, and there’s never been any kind of threat in the past that there would ever be a strike,” Gearllach said. “So why now is that a problem?”
The current situation seems something other than labor peace; UFCW has filed six unfair labor practice complaints during the negotiations. After receiving Harrison’s final contract offer, the UFCW workers met and approved an action plan that will start with an informational picket on Feb. 19 outside the hospital in Bremerton. The union wants to inform the public and patients of the issues in the stalled contract talks.
“This is really a confusing time,” Gearllach said. “Now that we’re affiliating with CHI, it begs the question — what is the reason they are pushing for this?”
Goodwill said Harrison has not changed its approach from past contract talks, and is negotiating its own labor agreement with no influence from Franciscan.
However, workers like Gearllach wonder about the future, and whether Harrison wants a ban on sympathy strikes in the contract to weaken the union.
“Maybe it’s not about this contract, it’s about the ones to come,” she said. “The contracts they plan to do with Franciscan.”
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