Tensions between Santa Clara County and a local nurses union hit a flash point today, when the union called a one-day strike at hospitals in San Jose and Gilroy.
Picket lines went up at 7 this morning at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose and St. Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy, to continue until 7 tonight, according to a statement from the California Nurses Association (CNA). The nurses, who work around the clock, would not return to work until 7am Wednesday, the union said.
Nurses at the two hospitals had voted in early February to authorize a strike, and union leaders told county supervisors Feb. 12 to expect a nurses strike if the county didn’t immediately begin negotiations on a new labor contract. The union said at the time that 90 percent voted in favor of a strike, but declined to say how many nurses voted. The union did not say how many nurses would be participating in the March 12 job action.
Noon rallies were scheduled Tuesday at each hospital, to be followed by a 1pm rally at the Santa Clara County Government Center—the same location where union leaders had joined with county government leaders in a Jan. 29 rally demanding that Attorney General Xavier Becerra drop his bid to block sale of the two hospitals to the county.
The CNA is demanding that the county designate it—and not a rival union, the Registered Nurses Professional Association (RNPA)—as the sole collective bargaining agent for the 482 nurses at O’Connor and the 200 nurses at St. Louise Regional. The RNPA represents 2,150 nurses at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and its clinics.
The county’s acquisition of the two hospitals from bankruptcy court was finalized just 10 days ago. County officials said that a strike by the California Nurses Association would be a “wildcat strike” that was illegal and unjustified.
The CNA contract with the previous owner of the two smaller hospitals, Verity Health System, had been voided by a bankruptcy court judge in late December, and all nurses at the hospitals early this year were offered the chance to keep their jobs in the new county hospital system, under the existing RPNA contract.
County Executive Jeff Smith told this news organization the county would take no disciplinary action against the nurses who don’t show up for work Tuesday, “unless they specifically interfere with patient care, commit crimes, or threaten employees.”
On March 4, the same day the CNA had cheered its success in convincing the state Public Employee Relations Board to file an unfair-labor-practices complaint in their behalf against the county, the unions were incensed by a memo to nurses from Smith warning them a strike could result in disciplinary actions against participating nurses. Smith said the memo merely re-stated existing county employment policies.
The implied threat, according to the CNA, prompted it to file a new complaint with PERB on Monday, when the strike action also was announced.
“Santa Clara County violated state law when it threatened to retaliate against registered nurses at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose and St. Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy for exercising their fundamental labor rights,” the union said in a statement Monday.
“The new charges were filed after the county illegally threatened hundreds of nurses with termination in a memo from County Executive Jeff Smith intended to intimidate and coerce nurses, in violation of state labor law,” the CNA charged.
In a May 7 memo, Smith warned of “serious possible consequences that employees may face if they fail to report to work.” He also told employees, “There may be consequences for individuals who decline to report to work as scheduled on March 12 or March 13, which could include possible termination of employment or release of employment from their provisional position depending on the circumstances.”
“We will not be bullied into standing down and letting the county violate our legal right to stand up for ourselves and our patients,” said Lianne Pounders, an intensive care unit registered nurse at O’Connor. “We are determined to exercise our legal right to strike, as the county refuses to recognize our democratically elected union.”
“We will not be monitoring participation in the action, only filling vacancies,” Smith said in a statement March 11 after the union’s strike announcement. He added: “We have contracts with temporary agencies who will provide nurses to cover any vacancies.”
Smith disputed the union’s contention that his memo constituted a threat. “The county has provided updates over the past few days to employees to address their questions about the work action,” he said. “We are encouraging employees to contact their union representatives if they are seeking additional guidance on union representation.”
On Feb. 8, CNA filed its unfair labor practice charge against Santa Clara County, warning that “the county will violate the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act by adding nurses and case managers employed by O’Connor and St. Louise Hospitals to two of the county’s existing bargaining units upon transfer of ownership of the two hospitals to the county.”
The union also filed a motion “to expedite the charge at all levels of PERB.”
On Feb. 20, the CNA filed a request for a temporary injunction, asking PERB to require the county to recognize CNA as the exclusive representative of nurses and case managers at O’Connor and St. Louise hospitals “while PERB adjudicates the underlying unfair practice charge.”
On March 4, the Office of General Counsel issued the complaint, based on the allegations from the union. Counsel Felix de la Torre said the union has presented a prima facie case, but added it will have to provide proof of the allegations in a hearing before administrative law judge.
De la Torre said a hearing will permit the board to resolve the complaint allegations in light of the [state law] and the county’s employer-employee relations rules.
The hearing is to be scheduled no later than April 26, with up to another month for closing briefs. PERB said the key questions in the dispute are:
Do the county’s local employer-employee rules apply? If so, how?
On what legal basis should PERB decide whether county can lawfully add O’Connor and St. Louise Hospital employees to pre-existing bargaining units? If so, how?
The union’s request for an injunction “remains pending before the board, without prejudice to any party’s ability to provide the board with further information.”
Smith also released a statement to all media in which he said: “Our primary focus since the acquisition closed on March 1 has been integrating O’Connor Hospital, St. Louise Regional Hospital, and the De Paul Health Center into the County’s Health System, with the highest priority being patient care, increasing healthcare access, and delivering high-quality medical services to all members of our community. This important work will continue during the California Nurses Association (CNA) work action tomorrow.”
“The county has taken all necessary steps to ensure that high-quality medical services, patient care, and all hospital operations will be unaffected by the CNA work action,” Smith continued in the same statement.
“While the county respects the right of employees to select the organization of their choice for purposes of representation, CNA does not currently represent any county employees, has not taken any of the steps necessary to become the lawful representative of any county employees, and is using its unlawful strike in its dispute about which union will represent county nursing staff located at O’Connor and St. Louise,” he went on.
“The nursing staff at O’Connor and St. Louise fall within existing county job classifications—such as clinical nurses or patient services case coordinators—that are already represented by other unions,” Smith said.
“The county will continue to meet its obligation to recognize these other unions as the exclusive representatives of these new employees in accordance with its contracts and applicable laws, rules and regulations.”
In a March 7 “FAQ” to employees, Smith said:
“The county understands that determining whether to participate in a strike—even one the county views as unlawful—and whether to cross a picket line are important personal decisions. And because of the serious possible consequences that employees may face if they fail to report to work, it is very important that individuals talk to their union representatives. Disciplinary and other employment decisions are always made by the county on a case-by-case basis, depending on underlying facts. But there may be consequences for individuals who decline to report to work as scheduled on March 12 or March 13, which could include possible termination of employment or release of employment from their provisional position depending on the circumstances.”
For updates on the acquisition of the hospitals and the work action, click here.