Pros and Cons of Unionization

Pros and Cons of Unionization

Page 18

Pros and Cons of Unionization


By Katherine Lesperance, BA, RRT

Editor’s Note: Numerous letters to ADVANCE over the past several months have centered on the issue of whether or not respiratory therapists should unionize. In this edition, we explore some pro-union opinions. In the next edition, we’ll look at anti-union sentiments.

Stalled union negotiations led to the largest one-day strike of health care workers in the San Francisco Bay Area on July 6, when approximately 4,000 health care workers, including respiratory therapists, LVNs, housekeepers, unit clerks, and X-ray and laboratory technicians walked off the job at eight California hospitals.

That one-day strike affected Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley; Alameda Hospital in Alameda; Children’s Hospital and Summit Medical Center, both in Oakland; St. Mary’s Medical Center and St. Francis Medical Center, both in San Francisco; Sutter Solano Medical Center in Vallejo; and Seton Medical Center in Daly City.

Although a stalemate between SEIU Local 250 and San Francisco Bay Area hospitals prompted the walkout last month, the one-day strike may see repeats later this summer, according to Sue Zupko, RRT, a staff therapist at St. Mary’s.

“Seventy-five percent of all technical workers throughout the Bay Area voted to unionize in October 1999,” she explained. Their numbers included RTs, X-ray technicians, pharmacy personnel, laboratory staff and others. “Seventy-five percent of all service workers followed suit in January of this year,” she continued. “Since that time, Sutter and Catholic Healthcare West hospitals have put off negotiations, thinking they could simply wait us out–that we might forget about it.”

That is not likely to occur. According to Zupko, about 80 percent of the respiratory therapists from her department were on the picket lines, which formed outside St. Mary’s at 6 a.m. Pickets walked the lines at the hospital until 1 p.m., after which they moved to San Francisco’s financial district, ending up at the headquarters of Catholic Healthcare West (CHW).

During the past decade, Catholic Healthcare West became a dominant health care provider in the Bay Area after taking over Seton, St. Mary’s, and St. Francis medical centers. The other large health care providers in the Bay Area include Kaiser-Permanente and Sutter Health.

Of the major players, Kaiser offers the best pay and benefits in the area, said Zupko. Employees of the Catholic Healthcare West and Sutter facilities are currently seeking the same benefits and pay ranges Kaiser employees receive.

“When we became part of Catholic Healthcare West, the new managers took away some of our vacation days and most of our shift differentials,” Zupko said. “We complained, but officials said salaries and benefits were within the range of other hospitals. That was in 1995. Since that time, we have slid way behind Kaiser.”

CHW claims it cannot match Kaiser, because it is expanding. “In other words, how could they pay us when they were busy buying new hospitals?” said Zupko.

Pay is not the only issue for CHW employees, according to Herb Steinkraus, BS, RRT, who is on the bargaining committee for Seton Hospital. A staff therapist, he has seen workloads increase while staffing has proportionally decreased during the past few years.

“Management did set up an ad hoc committee to establish acuity levels here at Seton,” he explained. But he termed the plan a ruse. The hospital basically just reorganized the way work units are assigned so managers could raise the number of assigned work units.

Every task was assigned a certain number of work units, he said. What happened was instead of having 24 work units as had been the case, therapists suddenly had to go out on the floors with 40 work units. And if there weren’t enough work units to go around, managers arbitrarily sent people home.

This hasn’t affected only Seton’s staff. The reorganization forced changes throughout the region. At St. Mary’s, it resulted in a nightshift staffed with only one therapist to cover the whole hospital.

“They justify this by saying work units are lower at night,” said Steinkraus. “But what happens if the ER has a code? Or ICU has an emergency? Or there is a bad baby in the nursery? This is just not safe.”


Safety is a primary issue not only for the patients but also for the staff. Suad Husary, RRT, knows the safety issue firsthand. She has worked at Seton Hospital for four years and is currently out on disability due to a serious back injury.

Husary claims her back injury was the direct result of unsafe working conditions due to an unmanageable workload one day.

“Usually there are three people assigned to do bronchoscopies,” she explained. “Due to pregnancy leaves and illnesses, there was only me that day. In addition to being assigned three back-to-back bronchoscopies, I had a heavy workload of patients to treat as well. I was hurrying down the hall pushing a cart that is much too heavy for one person to manage, and I twisted my back trying to negotiate a corner.”

In retrospect, she said she should have had help finishing her work that day, and the cart itself should have been fixed with wheels that moved smoothly.

After her initial injury, Husary said she was given one week off and was then put on “light duty.” Her light duty, Husary explained, consisted of handling the entire ER by herself. In the ensuing days in the ER, the back pain continued and then spread to her knees and feet. After fighting with Employee Health Department personnel, Husary was finally X-rayed and allowed to see a doctor.

“I was hurt in January, and it took until March before they would OK a doctor visit,” she said. By the time she finally was referred for care, her doctor found she had five bulging discs. As of July 1, she is off work for an undetermined time and in physical therapy nearly full time.

Both Husary and Steinkraus agree the work units established by hospital administrators are unreasonable and impossible to complete.

Husary said she worked many shifts without a lunch break and many shifts without any help.

“I got involved with union organizing for just that reason,” she said. “There have to be limits set so employees and patients are protected. We need to have a voice in what happens at our jobs.”

Bay Area health care workers are currently asking their union negotiators to address six areas of concern including:

  • Safe staffing levels,
  • An increase in union rights at work, including the right for unions to organize and hold elections,
  • Increased access to all union facilities for union representatives, including having a shop steward in-house at all times,
  • A reorganization of the hospital pension plans, which employees feel are inadequate,
  • Increased pay for all employees, and
  • Job security standards which would address arbitrary cancellation of shifts for full-time staff.

If CHW doesn’t sit down at the bargaining table with union representatives, hospital employees are prepared for another strike in August–a strike which will surely last longer than one day, Zupko said.

Every day employees are out on strike costs CHW thousands of dollars in pay for temp workers in addition to the bad publicity a strike engenders.

True, a strike also translates into lost employee wages for every day caregivers are not on the job. But if it will help Bay Area health care workers get a voice in their futures, Zupko said, then the fight is worthwhile.

“It isn’t as though they are paying top dollar and offering stock options like the companies, then asking for 120 percent in effort,” said Zupko. “Instead, they are asking for 120 percent in effort and offering crumbs in return. This was push come to shove.”

In our next edition, Catholic Healthcare West responds to its employees’ complaints.

Katherine Lesperance is a practitioner in Bellingham, Wash.