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CNA Wages War Against UHW in California Claiming Attempt to Suspend Staffing Ratios

BNA/Bloomberg, 6/19/12

By Michelle Amber
 
A war has erupted between two health care unions in California over an attack by one of the unions on the state's nurse-to-patient ratios.
 
The California Nurses Association/National Nurses United issued a statement June 15 alleging that Dave Regan, president of the Service Employees International Union's United Healthcare Workers West local, is attempting to suspend the hard-won nurse-patient ratios during breaks and meals.
 
UHW, however, responded that its position has been “mischaracterized,” and that it was attempting to get the labor movement to take a “neutral” position on a proposal by the state's hospital association to suspend the ratios.
 
CNA/NNU Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro told BNA June 18 that Regan June 14 requested an emergency meeting of the executive council of the California Labor Federation, an alliance of all the state's unions, to support efforts by the California Hospital Association to suspend the nurse-patient ratios during meals and breaks.
 
DeMoro, whose union fought for years to enact the state's minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, made a motion to oppose Regan's proposal. The executive council overwhelmingly adopted DeMoro's motion, a CLF official confirmed June 18.
 
But, UHW spokesman Steve Trossman told BNA June 18 that Regan merely was asking the labor unions to take a “neutral position” on the CHA proposal. That was rejected and CNA turned it “into a three ring circus,” he said, adding, “It's over and time to move on.”
 

DeMoro: ‘Stunned, Shocked, and Horrified.’

DeMoro said she was “stunned, shocked, and horrified” that a health care union, which also represents nurses, would attempt to overturn a regulation that was a huge priority for another union. Contending that Regan is working on behalf of the CHA, she said when a “union works for the bosses, it turns on other unions.”
 
According to DeMoro, Regan, who recently signed a partnership agreement with CHA (86 DLR A-2, 5/3/12), has been attempting to find a legislative sponsor for language in the state budget to suspend the ratios during meals and breaks, something that she said the hospital association has pushed as a key first step in dismantling the law.
 
DeMoro said during the emergency meeting Regan argued that state budget cuts affect lower-paid workers, like his members, and suspending the ratios during breaks and meals would offset the cuts. She said Regan made a “pathetic plea for shared sacrifice because the billionaire hospital industry needs relief.”
 
Trossman told BNA that the governor's budget took $400 million out of the state funds for hospitals and both CHA and the union were looking at ways to mitigate that. He explained that the cuts would fall mostly on “safety net hospitals that serve the poor” and result in layoffs of many of the UHW's members.
 
CHA proposed to temporarily suspend the ratios for about 18 months to offset the $400 million the governor took out of the budget, Trossman said. UHW took the position that the labor movement should take a neutral position on CHA's proposal, he added.
 

Letters Sent to Legislators

Both CNA and the California Labor Federation have sent letters to the legislature opposing any changes in the staffing ratios.
 
In a June 14 letter to all state legislators, CNA said suspending the ratios for every patient on every unit for the time nurses are away for meal and rest breaks “undermines patient safety in every hospital setting.” In units where patients receive critical care, such as intensive care units, medical-surgical units, and oncology units, among others, nursing services would find that “their RN patient care assignment would be doubled during a significant portion of each shift,” CNA said.
 
The union noted that a requirement for minimum staffing ratios at all times has been in place for nearly 40 years in the ICUs, neonatal intensive care, and operating rooms. Prior to the implementation in 2004 of the ratios in the remaining hospital units, the California Hospital Association lost a lawsuit in which it claimed the “at all times” language was not clearly stated as a requirement during the rulemaking process.
 
The judge said the only reasonable interpretation of the ratio regulation was that the requirement applied to all time, including meal and rest breaks. “Staff ratios would be meaningless if they are not applied to break periods,” she wrote (102 DLR AA-1, 5/27/04).
 
In a June 15 letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, as well as to the leaders of the state house and senate, the California Labor Federation said it “opposes any proposal to suspend nurse-to-patient staffing ratios during meal and rest periods.”
 
“Such a proposal would endanger both patient safety and worker health and safety, two core values we support and defend,” CNA said.
 

Relationship With SEIU Could Be in Peril

DeMoro said this is just the latest incidence of Regan working “behind the scenes” with the hospitals against the nurses' interests. She said Regan has accepted concessionary contracts with a number of hospitals for his members and has negotiated “me-too” agreements stating that if CNA/NNU gets better terms than those contracts contain, UHW would receive the same terms.
 
“When the nurses begin bargaining at one of these facilities they have to dig out from the hole UHW has dug that is lower than the employer would have presented” because it agreed to the concessions, she said.
 
In 2009, CNA and SEIU, which had been at odds for years, signed a partnership agreement to jointly organize and bargain with common employers (102 DLR AA-1, 5/27/04).
 
When asked about what the war with UHW means for that partnership, DeMoro replied, “I don't know what it says in terms of our relationship with the international SEIU.” She added that she believes that Regan does not like CNA organizing cooperatively with SEIU, which is what is fueling some of the attacks on the nurses.

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