New labor conflicts—and the threat of a nurses strike—have intensified an already boiling controversy over Santa Clara county’s purchase of two failing hospitals.
Nurses from O’Connor and Saint Louise hospitals on Tuesday, Feb. 12 warned the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors they will strike unless the county negotiates a new contract for them with the California Nurses Association (CNA), pending final approval of the hospitals’ sale. Meanwhile, the days count down towards a Feb. 22 showdown between California’s attorney general and the county.
If the sale falls through because of legal action by Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the more than 700 nurses at the two hospitals will be out of work.
A CNA spokesperson said more than 90 percent of nurses at the two hospitals endorsed a strike if the county follows a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge’s December ruling voiding the CNA contract at the O’Connor and Saint Louise hospitals. The CNA declined to say how many nurses participated in the strike vote, which concluded this past weekend.
If the sale closes on March 1, nurses at the two hospitals would be county employees represented by a CNA rival union, the Registered Nurses Professional Association (RNPA). More than a dozen nurses, all members of the CNA and some in tears, spoke to the supervisors, demanding immediate negotiations and job and seniority guarantees.
“We don’t want a fight, but you have left us no choice—we mean what we say,” Melinda Markowitz, CNA president, told the supervisors. Nurses said the county has reneged on its promises to offer jobs to all 2,000-plus employees at O’Connor and Saint Louise, citing examples of kitchen workers and other staff at Saint Louise who were not offered jobs and 12 nurses, most in the emergency room at O’Connor, whose job offers were rescinded this month with no explanation.
The nurses told supervisors they had a right to strike because of “unfair labor practices” committed by the county in transitioning nurses into new jobs as county employees.
The county said it has offered jobs to more than 700 nurses from the two hospitals.
Bankruptcy Court Judge Ernest Robles voided the O’Connor and St. Louise union contracts. He said the county has no responsibility for any pension benefits. CNA objected to Verity Health’s motion to reject their contract and has requested damages for breach of contract from Verity. Robles continued the Jan. 30 hearing on CNA’s objection to this coming Wednesday.
On Monday, County Executive Jeff Smith said in an interview that, “we’ve made it clear that we can’t unilaterally decide who represents the nurses.” Entering into a new, separate contract with the O’Connor and St. Louise nurses would violate the county charter and the county’s contract with the CNA’s rival, the RNPA, he added.
“There is literally no legal way they can get what they are asking for,” he said. The county has no independent authority to decide who is representing whom—it would be a violation of the union contract and of the county’s merit system.”
He called the CNA members’ arguments ”absurd” and “irrational” and cautioned nurses that walking off the job after March would be an illegal “wildcat strike.”
The RNPA represents the 2,270 nurses and nurse practitioners at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, and will legally will represent all hospital nurses on March 1, when the acquisition would close—unless Becerra wins in court.
Becerra is asking a U.S. District Court judge to block the county’s $235 million purchase of the two hospitals from Verity Health System, claiming he has the authority to require guarantees of healthcare services by the county.
Lawyers expect District Court Judge Dolly Gee to rule on Becerra’s request following a Feb. 22 hearing in her Los Angeles courtroom, in advance of the March 1 expiration date of the county’s purchase agreement.
Gee’s ruling likely will decide whether the 358-bed O’Connor Hospital in San Jose and the 93-bed Saint Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy will be forced to close their doors or gain new life as part of an expanded county-run healthcare system.
In a statement Monday, RNPA said it “remains committed to expanding healthcare access in Santa Clara County.” “In its last-ditch effort to call a strike, the California Nurses Association continues to spread misinformation,” the statement read. “This does not help its members or protect patient care.”
The RNPA scheduled a rally for its members from 11:30am to 12:30pm Thursday on the Valley Medical Center campus, in front of the Valley Specialty Center, “in support of the county’s purchase of O’Connor, Saint Louise and the DePaul Health Center.”
The county’s five-year contract with the RNPA expires this fall. The county and RNPA are not currently in labor contract negotiations, which are expected to begin this summer.
The CNA claims that nurse salaries at O’Connor and Saint Louise are higher than county nurses’ salaries, and complained that the county jobs will mean pay cuts for many nurses. If CNA nurses go through with a strike after March 1, the union said it would give a 10-day advance notice.
Chun-Siew Chan, a Mother Baby Unit registered nurse at O’Connor Hospital, said in a CNA press release: “Right now, nurses have concerns that the county is failing to make necessary commitments, and if it comes down to striking to make our voices heard, then we will always stand up for our patients, our colleagues and our community.”