UC, Nurses Butt Heads During Talks

The second session of labor negotiations between the University of California and the California Nurses Association ended last week after much discussion but little resolution.

Courtesy of John Yao
Thornton Hospital nurses such as Patrick Lutz have been locked in a bitter fight with the university in negotiations over the levels of nurse pensions and health benefits.

The latest meeting in a series of talks was one of four scheduled talks in “reopener” negotiations between the university and CNA about contracts for nurses employed at UC-run medical centers.

Negotiations began last year, when the CNA and the university disagreed on specific terms of the nurses’ proposed two-year contracts.

The session included discussion of four main issues: salaries, health benefits, retiree health benefits and break issues.

Although the university presented statistics showing that wage increases and benefit options were generous, the CNA argued that the increases were not sufficiently competitive with the local market.

“UCSD has always been the lowest-paid hospital in its area,” said Beth Kean, the CNA director for the UC division. “Those statistics made its wages seem competitive because they included areas like El Centro. Those statistics are no impartial; they’re political.”

CNA officials insisted that political motivations have marred the negotiations, and accused the university of fighting the nurses on behalf of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“This is a political issue because hospitals are regulated by the government,” Kean said. “It is a very political issue, but we didn’t make it that way, UC did.” For over a decade, the CNA has been involved in a bitter dispute with California lawmakers over staffing-ratio rules that assigns a set number of patients to each UC nurse. Last year, Schwarzenegger attempted to increase the patientto- nurse ratio. Nevertheless, UC officials denied that its proposals have been politically motivated. “Politics have nothing to do with it,” UC spokesman Noel Van Nyhuis said. “Any political notions are on the side of the CNA. They are trying to put politics in the way of bargaining, when it has nothing to do with the issues.”

Regardless of politics, the purpose of the negotiations is to create a contract that will not only satisfy UC nurses, but also encourage newly registered nurses to fill empty nurse slots.

“Historically, UC hospitals — compared to others — paid their nurses less, but kept nurses there because they offered better health benefits and pensions,” Kean said. “But that has changed now, and almost all hospitals offer pensions now.”

UC officials have called university pension packages “exceptional … as compared with key competitors.”

Nurses, however, dispute the notion.

“These benefits are threatened, as UC plans to force [registered nurses] to pay 8 percent of their salary for pension, and pay huge increases in retiree health premiums,” the union stated in a press release.

Although no agreements have been made, it is still early in the bargaining process — with two more sessions scheduled for later this month.

“These things take time,” Van Nyhuis said.

However, Kean said she feels that agreement may be difficult to reach because both sides appear to have such different motivations.

“Our goal is to ensure that staffing is safe, and theirs is to increase profits,” Kean said.

Another issue the CNA is fighting for is the “lift-team bill,” which would allow nurses to work in teams using special equipment to lift overweight patients. Such practices would reduce the risk of back injuries for nurses, the union said. UC officials, however, have said that the financial burden incurred by such legislation should make taxpayers wary. The university’s aversion to such policies — for financial reasons, the union argues — irked Kean, who said she was questioning the effectiveness of the negotiations.