by Lori King

On December 12 Chino Valley Medical Center nurses ratified their first union contract. Prior to the ratification, the hospital and nurses suffered through several months of contentious negotiations – requiring mediation, an informational picket in August, and a 3-day strike in October. In reports, the strike was due to the Nurses asking for a 3% pay raise and the employer offering 2.5%. Nurses said the hospital’s offer was not enough to address high turnover rates due to low market pay.

A thirty-thousand foot view of this situation prompts some key questions. What did nurses really gain in bringing a union to represent them? What could the hospital have done differently to avoid this situation?

Every time a first contract is settled the union claims victory. It is very important to “read between the lines” in these post-settlement announcements to figure out what nurses actually received that they didn’t already enjoy without a union.

An article announcing the contract ratification states the agreement landed on the 2.5% raise, NOT the 3% the nurses struck over and well below the average salary increase for nurses last year. The strike did not move the wage offer, likely put a great deal of stress on patient care delivery, and undoubtedly cost the employer considerable financial resources in contracted staffing and service interruptions. Surely those resources could be better spent for a system that has stated financial strain.

Additionally, both sides agreed to form an advisory committee, which nurses state will be used to “push for improvements” in patient care. It is unclear whether the health system sought input from nurses prior to the organizing effort, but advisory committees like this are very common in direct-relationship facilities.

It is hard to imagine the health system didn’t already seek input from nurses, but if they didn’t the fix was easy and did not require a labor contract. Every health system should give the nurses (and all their employees) a voice in the workplace from the start. Now, the employer is managing a relationship with the union rather than their nurses and nurses are paying monetary dues in order to have a conversation about their patient care concerns.

Both parties also agreed on contract language that requires “proper training” for nurses before they are required to float to other units. Again, it is hard to imagine that this wasn’t already happening, and it absolutely should not require a labor contract. Employers pay attention. Healthcare employers already know it is fundamental that nurses be given patient assignments which they are properly prepared to carry out. It should not take a union to accomplish this imperative and is a very expensive and adversarial way to problem solve. This issue should not exist in the first place.

Finally, the nurses say they secured nurse to patient ratio language in this new contract. This naturally pique’s one curiosity and is another common hollow claim of victory in post-settlement press releases. What does this language say that current state law did not address? This hospital is in California where nurse unions boast about the state laws surrounding staffing ratios. What did the new contract provide that wasn’t already dictated by the rules and penalties imposed on California healthcare employers? If it just repeats what the state law requires (very likely), then nurses gained nothing.

There is clearly more to this story than one can read in the news. That said, the lessons are clear. This appears to be a great deal of fighting and expense that ended with no “winning” side.

This situation is a lesson to employers on the importance of proactively addressing issues and giving employees a voice in the workplace. Nurses should pay attention to what was gained – and not gained – in this situation. They now have the same problems but are now paying a union to be their voice, while being compensated at a rate less than the current national rate.