Nurses score wins for unions and patients

WASHINGTON - Emphasizing that short-staffing harms patients, the National Nurses Union - after a bitter struggle - racked up a big contract win at the D.C. area's largest hospital, the Washington Hospital Center.

Details of the settlement had been sketchy, but NNU member Rajini Raj filled some in on May 21 at a labor-sponsored forum on Asian-American workers.

The hospital, part of the very profitable MedStar chain, had steadfastly refused to bargain in good faith with NNU, she said. The union represents 1,650 nurses at the institution, a Level I trauma center that often receives the worst and most-difficult cases.

At one point, last Oct. 1, management declared an impasse in bargaining and attempted to impose its last offer, Raj said. It also fired 18 nurses, all union activists, for being unable to report for work during D.C.'s record blizzard a year ago February.

"They were bargaining in bad faith, but they never pleaded poverty," Raj told the group. "They couldn't. MedStar made $142 million in profits in its last fiscal year and $123 million more from last July 1 through Dec. 31. But it enjoys 'non-profit' status, so it can refrain from paying taxes," she added.

NNU won the right to represent the nurses just three days after the impasse. The now-NNU nurses later took a strike authorization vote, which passed overwhelmingly. After legally required notice, the NNU conducted a 1-day strike at the hospital on March 4, and management then locked them out for four more days.

But hospital management caught so much flak from area activists and politicians move that the hospital was forced back to bargaining, and the two sides agreed on a new pact earlier in May. The nurses ratified it by a 93 percent-7 percent margin. Provisions include establishment of "a new staffing matrix" to end short-staffing problems. Management must also meet with NNU representatives in a joint committee on staffing.

Also included are wage increases of 8.5 percent-9 percent over the 42-month term of the contract, retroactive to October. The pact also restores night and weekend differential pay that management wanted to eliminate.

And finally, provisions include restoring the 18 fired nurses (10 are already back) to their jobs with back pay.

"It's superior and allows us a voice on staffing and care issues," Raj said. "We will continue to speak out as patients' advocates. It's the only way we can improve quality of health care in this city."

 

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