Health care is among the few sectors of the national economy
where unionization is actually increasing. One local sign: nurses at
St. Louis University Hospital and Des Peres Hospital recently pulled
off rare votes to organize workers at local health institutions.
Collective bargaining talks have begun, and they may not be easy.
Nurses want not only increased pay and benefits, but also improved
staffing ratios they say will enhance the quality of patient care.
"We expect the tenor of the discussions to be professional as
nurses put forward their proposals for improvement to patient care,"
said Andrew Prediletto, principal negotiator for the nurses at SLU
Hospital. "We hope to reach agreement as soon as possible, but there
is no set timetable."
The votes came against a backdrop of setbacks for unionization
efforts at local hospitals in recent years. Nurses at Mercy Hospital
St. Louis in Creve Coeur voted to decertify their union affiliation
in 2007. Nurses at St. Louis Children's Hospital voted down an
attempt to unionize in 2003.
SLU Hospital nurses voted by a 3-to-1 ratio in early June to join
the National Nurses Organizing Committee-Missouri, an affiliate of
the 175,000 member National Nurses United, the nation's largest
union and professional association of registered nurses. Des Peres
Hospital nurses voted by a 2-to-1 ratio three weeks later to
The bargaining agent will represent about 600 registered nurses
at SLU and 250 nurses at Des Peres Hospital.
"Nurses see this process as an opportunity to make improvements
in staffing," said Prediletto, whose union is headquartered in
suburban Washington. "We anticipate discussing an improvement of
wages benefits and working conditions ... We've had meetings at both
hospitals, and we've issued proposals."
Phillip Sowa, the chief executive of SLU Hospital, said in a
written statement that additional days of bargaining are being
scheduled for the coming months. "We will continue to negotiate with
them in good faith," he said, "and we remain focused on our ultimate
goal of providing high-quality health care to this community."
The hospital maintains that it offers competitive wages and
benefits, and that its management promotes a positive work
Walter Kopp, an independent hospital consultant based in San
Anselmo, Calif., said the nurses union likely will face tough talks.
"There are huge cuts coming for hospitals with health care
reform. The revenue for hospitals is going to drop dramatically as
unnecessary care is dropped," Kopp said. "That's going to be the
background of these negotiations."
With less money, Kopp said, "these hospitals will be really
reluctant to tie themselves into expensive benefit contracts."
Both hospitals are owned by Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare Corp.,
a for-profit national chain of hospitals that has struggled
financially in recent years.
Several hundred technicians, janitors and food workers at SLU
Hospital and Des Peres Hospital have also voted to join SEIU
Healthcare, a union representing service workers. SEIU and National
Nurses United have worked together for the past couple of years to
recruit more workers in various parts of the country.
Prediletto said the nurses union's successes include a contract
settlement in March with six Tenet-owned hospitals in California "to
achieve many of the improvements that nurses across the country are
looking to see. …