By April Dembosky
Unions are sparring every day this week over the fate of six safety-net hospitals in California, showcasing how splintered the health care labor movement has become.
At issue is the same of the financially-distressed hospitals currently owned by the nonprofit Daughters of Charity. The leading buyer is for-profit Prime Healthcare.
The state attorney general's office is hearing testimony at each of the six hospitals this week before it approved or denies the sale. Because the hospitals are owned by a non-profit, the state is tasked with making sure the sale to a for-profit company benefits the public interest.
Unions are divided over whether Prime is the right candidate for the job.
SEIU United Healthcare Workers West began waging a campaign against Prime Healthcare eight months ago. They rallied a long list of California lawmakers and advocates to oppose the sale.
“There has never been the breadth or the depth of opposition to any hospital transaction in the history of California,” says Dave Regan, union president.
SEIU’s main concern with Prime taking over is the threat of bankruptcy. Prime has indicated it is willing to restructure to bring order to the hospitals’ finances. This could put union members’ pensions at risk of being slashed.
“The workforce, in terms of retirement benefits, would be totally unprotected,” Regan says.
Then, after months of publicly fighting the sale, SEIU confronted a new opponent last fall: another union.
The California Nurses Association declared its support of the sale to Prime in October. The union struck its own deal with Prime that includes a promise to maintain current staffing levels and to fully fund nurses’ pensions and retiree health benefits.
“Retirees don’t want to worry about having to go to Walmart to get a job,” says Jacqualine Gammage-Rogers, a nurse at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles, one of the hospitals included in the sale. She’s planning to retire in the next five years.
“I want to be able to walk away with my pension to maintain my life and my style of living,” she says. “Yes, I’m going to make some changes, but I want to make sure that I don’t have to eat cat food once I retire.”
The California Nurses' Association and SEIU have a tumultuous history. The two unions have clashed over how to negotiate with hospitals.
“They have been known to ally with each other,” says Joanne Spetz, UC San Francisco professor of economics. “Lately, it seems like they've been working against each other more frequently.”
Tensions have risen when the two unions have bargained separately in the same hospital, with CNA representing nurses and SEIU-UHW representing technicians and other vocational health care workers. Each is willing to make very different kinds of trade-offs.
SEIU has made deals recently to secure its right to organize within hospitals, usually by making certain concessions to management.
“SEIU will come to an agreement of what will be on the bargaining table and what won’t -- then agree there will be representation without elections,” Spetz says. “CNA has not been willing to negotiate that way.”
Several other unions have taken a position on the sale, with nurses from SEIU Local 121 RN in favor, and nurses from the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals opposed.
Spetz says the attorney general's office – and consumers – need to be cautious about the union politics and rhetoric in their review of the sale. The attorney general must confirm or reject the deal before February 12.
The hospitals included in the sale are: Seton Medical Center in Daly City; Seton Coastside in Moss Beach; O’Connor Hospital in San Jose; Saint Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy; St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles; and St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood.