The shroud of silence is surprising, given the last news-making labor dispute between the two parties in 2011. It was an easy headline three years ago, with then Mayor David Coss, a labor loyalist, helping negotiate on behalf of District 1199 of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees.
The story faded after the union agreed to accept management's final contract offer instead of striking, but the contention between the parties simmered.
The current round of labor negotiations has been transpiring quietly for months now, as the two parties met on Fridays and Saturdays at the Courtyard Marriott and at Christus St. Vincent's Education building on Siringo Road. Neither side disclosed many details of the talks.
The union called one press conference in early June, accusing management of attempting to muzzle nurses from talking about staffing levels to the public in one of its proposals. But the management pulled that language from its offers, and, as the July 31 deadline for the expiration of the current contract approached, everything seemed fine following that brief dust-up.
Until last week, when union nurses overwhelmingly rejected the hospital's "best and final offer" in a Sunday night gathering while issuing a ten-day notice for a strike on Monday.
"Three years ago, we went out and we had the public," says District 1199 president Fonda Osborn, "We were marching."
This time around, the union decided to focus internally on earning support from its members, she says. They called in support from the national union headquarters to help build membership.
The union's internal strategy might be changing now as the strike looms. Union officials asked for a meeting Tuesday with local elected leaders, convening in the evening with county Commissioner Liz Stefanics and city Councilors Patti Bushee, Sig Lindell and Joseph Maestas.
Mayor Gonzales issued a hasty statement that didn't take sides on the dispute—a notable shift from the rhetoric of his predecessor. The union didn't endorse any mayoral candidate in the election, and so far Gonzales hasn't been nearly as vocal as Coss.
“St. Vincent’s and their employees are a vital part of our community and a critical asset to the city of Santa Fe," reads a Gonzales statement issued Monday. "I am asking both parties to come together and continue negotiations for the betterment of our community. It is my hope that this open dialogue seeks a fair agreement for all involved and one yielding the highest quality of care for our residents and those across the region who depend on the hospital. I ask both parties to put the patients first and quickly strive towards a resolution which puts this matter behind us.”
Management has bridled its public reaction, instead encouraging District 1199 to accept the contract offer. Again the contention surrounds staffing levels. The last contract established a 10-member staffing committee, split between union nurses and management, with the tie vote going to management on how to staff critical units in the hospital. Initially, in 2011, hospital documents showed management benchmarked staffing in certain units to the 50th percentile of peer institutions, meaning that half of the hospitals of a similar size staffed critical units with more nurses and caregivers than Christus St. Vincent.
The hospital then dropped staffing to the 40th percentile, according to documents, meaning 60 percent of peer institutions were more robustly staffed. Osborn now claims the hospital wants to drop staffing even more, endangering patients. The hospital management has maintained patient outcomes have improved as it's become more efficient at staffing.
Meanwhile the hospital braces for a financial hit that goes with retaining replacement nurses. Management says that could cost millions. Both sides are still willing to sit down at the table.
"Like the Union," says hospital spokesman Arturo Delgado, "CSV is willing to return to the bargaining table to continue good-faith discussions. "But, in light of the Union’s 10-day strike notice, we also must continue to make necessary preparations for a work stoppage."