Nurses represented by the Registered Nurses Professional Association (RNPA) were poised to start the year with a strike. But late Monday night, the union reached a tentative agreement with Santa Clara County to avoid the strike in exchange for “competitive wages, hours and safe working conditions” that nurses had been demanding for months, the RNPA announced in a news release earlier today.
Once ratified by the full RNPA membership in January, the new deal will cover more than 3,000 nurses working in the Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System—whose ranks swelled last spring with the county’s acquisition of O’Connor Hospital in San Jose and St. Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy.
The agreement shrinks the pay gap between county health facilities and their private counterparts, according to the union, and came only after two-thirds of RNPA members voted to authorize a strike starting next month.
“Nurses showed our unity and were willing to strike to make sure County leaders did the right thing by demonstrating they value patient care and respect nurses,” RNPA President and Valley Medical Center RN Debbie Chang said in a news release announcing the deal. “Under our new contract we look forward to a new partnership with the county and continuing to deliver the highest quality care to our patients.
The past several months have been marked by lingering, rancorous labor fights between the county and two unions representing more than 15,000 of its employees. Before the Monday agreement with RNPA, tensions with both unions heated up this past week, as both contract disputes took turns for the worse.
The RNPA, with more than 3,000 members, voted this past Sunday to authorize a strike if its negotiators fail to reach an agreement two months after expiration of its contract with the county. Two days earlier, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521 announced it had pulled out of mediation sessions after several weeks, claiming county negotiators weren’t dealing with vacancy and retention issues.
In an interview with this news organization, County Executive Jeff Smith said he remained optimistic that the contract dispute would be resolved soon, but foresaw a more difficult path ahead in the SEIU contract talks. “We were disappointed that [the SEIU] terminated mediation,” he said. “We felt we were making progress.”
Smith said the county is prepared to offer its workers a $1,000 bonus if their unions ratify new contracts. He said any new agreements on salaries would not be retroactive to the date the old contracts expired. SEIU leaders said they would voluntarily commit to refrain from calling a strike at least until Jan. 10. As for the nurses, the county executive said, ”I think we should be able to get to a contact agreement.”
The SEIU represents more than half of the county’s 22,000-member workforce, but claims that they account for barely a third of the county payroll.
“Rank-and-file members call on the Board of Supervisors to justify offering 6 percent raises to lowest paid workers and 11 percent to managers over next two years while county claims financial hardship,” the union said in a statement released last week.
After weeks of voluntary mediation between the county and the SEIU, the workers’ bargaining team ended the mediation talks after they said the Board of Supervisors refused to address a “widespread vacancy and retention crisis” in county government.
“Jeff Smith, under the direction of the Board of Supervisors, has for months ridiculed and undermined the efforts of frontline workers to reach an equitable agreement that puts forth long-term solutions to the staffing crisis impacting our residents’ abilities to obtain critical services,” said Janet Diaz, a business services clerk at Valley Medical Center and Santa Clara County Chapter SEIU president. “The county’s offer to its management employees contradicts Smith’s claims that the board must offer so little to frontline workers because that is necessary to reach ‘a positive and sustainable resolution that protects the stability of the county budget.’ “
Diaz said the county’s bargaining stance is not about sustainability.
“It’s about a total lack of respect for the county’s lowest paid workers,” he said, “and for the residents who don’t get the level of service they need because of the high number of vacancies that result from inadequate pay.”
Smith said county vacancy rates are comparable with other local governments.
The SEIU also expressed concern about raises the county has settled on with its management employees. On Dec. 4, the county announced an offer to management employees that would increase pay by 6 percent in 2019, 5 percent in 2020, and 3 percent per year thereafter. The county’s “last, best, and final offer” to employees represented by SEIU Local 521 was 3 percent per year for the same five-year period.
“The SEIU-represented workers are disproportionately women and people of color. Denying equity to the SEIU workers will only exacerbate the economic divide that already exists in our community,” Riko Mendez, SEIU Local 521 chief elected officer, said.
Diaz said that SEIU is “willing to continue negotiations to reach a fair agreement on the terms of a collective bargaining agreement.” But she added that changes at the newly-acquired hospitals remain unresolved.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Wadsworth.