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Union or Bust!

Christus and nurses go head to head on labor negotiations, again

June 11, 2014, 12:00 am

With some 40 years of organizing experience with various unions, Stewart Acuff isn’t one to pull punches.

“We’re determined not to let these cowboys from Texas beat this union,” he says in an interview Thursday, taking a jab at the Dallas-area corporate offices for Santa Fe’s Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. “And they intend to bust this union. It’s a picture-perfect strategy on their part.”

St. Vincent Vice President of Public Policy Lillian Montoya says the claim that the hospital wants to get rid of the union is “completely untrue.”

National union organizer Stewart Acuff, at right in the black T-shirt and jeans, joins local hospital union members at a press conference.
Justin Horwath

“We are very disappointed in this allegation, as we feel that recent negotiations have been thoughtful and constructive,” she says.

Hospital managers and the Local 1199 of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees have been negotiating on a new contract since April, and now a June 31 deadline looms. That’s the date the current three-year collective bargaining agreement expires.

Any agreement the parties reach could impact patient care, such as how many nurses work on any given shift.

So far, this round of negotiations seems less dramatic than the last go-around four years ago, when nurses took to the streets, threatening a strike and enlisting the support of then-Mayor David Coss, a union stalwart who publicly supported its fight.

Now there’s no sight of Coss, who has avoided limelight following the expiration of his term. Nor has City Hall’s new leader Javier Gonzales made public statements about the negotiations, the details of which have largely stayed within the confines of private rooms where the two sides meet every week.

This time it’s Acuff—the Philadelphia-based national organizing director of the hospital’s union who flew to New Mexico last week, bringing with him a crew of organizers—making waves.

He says he’s focused on “building the core [of the Local 1199], building the membership and building the willingness to see this fight all the way through.”

By last week, six national organizers were on the ground in Santa Fe, he says, adding that three more are expected to appear this week. By his account, the role of the organizers isn’t so much to help with negotiations, but rather to identify new leaders for Local 1199 and to rally members behind the union as they negotiate with the hospital.

Yet there’s one similarity between the two negotiating rounds: the contention centers around workplace conditions and how much control the two parties have over them.

Contention centers around workplace conditions and how much control the two parties have over them.

A press conference in front of the hospital Thursday contained shades of negotiations four years ago, with local union President Fonda Osborn telling reporters that a recent proposal by Christus included language that would allow the hospital to fire employees without prior warning if they share hospital data. “It has been increasingly obvious that the desire of Christus is to put a collective gag on the voice of the health care employees at the hospital,” she said.

“[The hospital] gave us discipline language, which had like a full page of things that employees could be terminated for without notice,” Osborn tells SFR later, “and part of that includes bringing staffing language out of the hospital, saying bad things about the hospital in the public and things like that.”

Last year, 1199 began collecting “staffing insufficiency reports” that it made public. The chapter’s website contains a link that allows nurses to fill out incident reports from shifts about staffing levels on floors. In October, SFR published the contents of some of those reports and quoted internal hospital documents that suggested benchmark-staffing levels for nurses and other unit employees had been below that of 60 percent of peer hospitals. The union has been pushing for state legislation that would mandate staffing levels at hospitals across New Mexico. The hospital says that clinical outcomes improved as it has become “more efficient” at staffing.

“As with any health care provider, we will always lean on the side of patient privacy,” Montoya says. “If an employee violates federal or state law and discloses confidential or unauthorized patient information, we will take appropriate action. This applies to every employee, including management.

Staffing insufficiency reports reviewed by SFR have never contained names or records that would identify patients.

In the backdrop of negotiations is union membership and staff turnover. Acuff says 1199’s national president Henry Nicolas is determined to pledge “whatever it takes” to win what he calls “a national fight” against Christus St. Vincent. On Thursday, he says, Nicolas met with the national president of the AFL-CIO—America’s largest union—to see how it can help the Local 1199 here.

Osborn says there are 400 nurses in the bargaining unit as of April. Montoya says there are a total of 600 nurses working at the hospital. According to Osborn, since the 2011 contract went into effect, 249 nurses have left the hospital.


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