Bitter Politics Prolong Nursing Contract Decision

    “Reopener” negotiations between the University of California and the California Nurses Association concluded last week with both sides still divided on key areas of the two-year nursing contracts. The lack of resolution at the final session marked the end of the two-party talks and the entrance of an independent mediator.

    The back-and-forth debate that swept discussions has prompted one agreement — to declare an “impasse,” in which the Public Employment Relations Board will appoint a mediator to assist in decision making.

    CNA and the university completed this identical process last year to establish the 2005-07 nursing contracts. However, after 11 months, the two sides failed to agree on the four most difficult issues — salaries, healthcare, retiree health and meal breaks.

    CNA’s current proposal is aimed at confronting the recruitment and retention crisis at UC medical centers, where hundreds of nurses have left UC hospitals in search of higher salaries and better benefits, CNA’s director for UC negotiations Beth Kean said.

    The university denies that it has a staffing “crisis,” reporting low vacancy and turnover rates, and claims that the university is at or above the market average in terms of compensation and salaries, UC Office of the President spokesman Noel Van Nyhuis said.

    Despite a 13.5-percent salary increase in 2005, CNA insists that UC nurses are still underpaid compared to the local market.

    The discrepancy in the University of California’s statistics lies in the university’s method of including very low-paid areas like El Centro to reduce the market averages in order to make the university look more competitive, Kean said.

    “It’s like Mark Twain’s quote, ‘There are lies, damned lies and statistics,’” Kean said. “Numbers can be presented in any way to prove the point you’re trying to make. [The university is] using [its] numbers politically.”

    Even if averages were representative, such wages are insufficient considering the complexity of UC patient care, Kean said, mentioning that university medical centers house the sickest patients and the largest organ-transplant program in the state.

    When asked about the intricacies of UC nursing, Van Nyhuis said that this point has not been mentioned in the negotiations.

    “I don’t know what other hospitals do,” he said. “Have they brought that up at the bargaining table?”

    Other concerns focus on the data that the university has released concerning nurse’s salaries and benefit options. CNA reported that the university has hired an outside public relations firm to run the campaign “against the nurses” while also withholding data from the union.

    Van Nyhuis affirmed the hiring, but attributed it to another reason — the agency is meant to help inform nurses.

    “Given the fact that CNA historically puts out misinformation, we thought it was a way to get facts out quickly,” he said.

    As for the source of the University of California’s data, Van Nyhuis said that it is collected by a “third party,” which is paid to do business for the university.

    “[The third-party consultant has] propriety on how they conduct business and who they do business with,” Van Nyhuis said. “The specifics [of where the data comes from] are not provided.”

    Regardless of its origin, the university is bringing information to negotiation sessions, whereas CNA has not, according to Van Nyhuis.

    “We don’t even have anything to rebuke from [CNA] because they have presented no data,” he said. “We can only control our side of the equation. We come to the bargain in good faith and hope that it’s reciprocated by the unions.”

    Data has not been the only factor hampering progress; both sides have reported other political motives impeding the bargaining process.

    “CNA has held a long and public battle with the governor,” Van Nyhuis stated in an e-mail. “The union has attempted to try to bring [its] political agenda into negotiations, however, it has nothing to do with negotiating a contract for UC nurses and only serves to stifle progress at the bargaining table.”

    While CNA admits to battling Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger about his attacks on staffing ratios and pension, union officials are fighting on behalf of all UC nurses, Kean said.

    “UC is a huge political player in the state,” Kean said. “What we’re doing at the bargaining table reflects what 9,000 nurses want.”

    Kean also said the union has less faith in the university’s motivations in light of the recent executive-pay scandals.

    “The main thing happening is that [the university] is used to being 100 percent in charge,” Kean said. “Unionized work means collaboration … and [UC] is not good at that. [The UC pay scandal] has been very disheartening. It’s clear that [the university] has the money [to compensate nurses]; their priorities are just out of line. It’s a hard time to bargain.”

    While “reopener” negotiations have concluded, changes will not take effect until after mediation. If it is unsuccessful, fact-finding will occur in July and August, in which a neutral party will outline a fair settlement in attempt to unite both sides in agreement.

    Readers can contact Serena Renner at [email protected].

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