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St. Vincent prepares for state's first nurses' strike.

KARON MADDUX AND Margaret Sexton have chosen two widely divergent paths, though each claims the same goal.

Both are veteran nurses in the St. Vincent Health System in Little Rock, and they agree that their profession has serious problems extending far beyond the facilities in which they work.

Both want the problems fixed. But Maddux has decided to take direct action in the workplace, while Sexton favors an industry wide solution.

If negotiations fail to prevent a strike planned for Tuesday by United Health Care Local 22, the union representing St. Vincent nurses, the two will be on opposite sides of the picket line. Maddux, a union member, plans to walk. Sexton has not joined the union and says she'll be at work.

The strike may not happen, at least nor this week. The sides were to meet at the bargaining table last Friday in a session requested by a federal mediator. Both sides said they do not want a strike, but at press time on Thursday, both were grimly preparing for it.

"I'm hoping that we don't have to strike," said Maddux, a nurse for 20 years at St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center, the system's anchor facility. A genuine management offer to jump-start negotiations could head off a strike, she said, but "unfortunately, I don't think that that's going to. happen. I do think that the nurses are going to have to strike."

St. Vincent's strike plans are in full swing.

"We're in the process of making preparations for a potential strike, and there's a lot to do," said Scott D. Mosley, vice president of corporate development for the St. Vincent system. "St. Vincent's negotiating team is open to federal mediation and is cautiously optimistic about the prospects of additional discussion. However, [we] remain concerned about the distance between the demands of union representatives and St. Vincent's final offer extended in July 2001.

"In the meantime, St. Vincent has no choice but to continue making preparations in light of the union's notification of a strike on Feb. 26."

"Everything's still on," said Donna Shaffer, a negotiator for the Office and Professional Employees International Union, the parent organization for Local 22. "The only thing that could change that is negotiations. I'm still waiting to see when or if negotiations are going to be started."

Local v. National

Sexton, a labor-and-delivery nurse at Sr. Vincent. Doctors' Hospital in Little Rock, agreed with Maddux and other union members that their jobs have become more difficult and less satisfying. Maddux, in turn, agreed with Sexton and hospital management that overwork, poor nurse-patient ratios and the influence of managed-care companies on medical treatment are national problems.

"It's not unique to St. Vincent," Maddux said. "It's industrywide."

"I'm not discrediting the fact that there are issues," Sexton said. "I don't feel the issues are with St. Vincent [but are] all over the country. We feel like the budget should ... pay for enough nurses at the bed-side.

"Patients in the hospital are much sicker than they were 10-20 years ago," she said, explaining that hospitals formerly admitted people who are now treated as outpatients. In addition, she said, patients used to convalesce in the hospital, but managed care health insurance has all but ended admissions for testing and recuperation.

"Now people are sent home," Sexton said. "That's because of what insurance will pay for."

A dramatic rise in outpatient procedures and much shorter average hospital stays in recent years has resulted in patients with pressing medical needs in almost every bed. Today's nurse would therefore deal with more intense needs than they. would have a decade ago, even when caring for a comparable number of patients.

"I respect what they're going through," Sexton said, referring to the union members' complaints.

The Choice

OPEIU is the first labor union to represent hospital nurses in Arkansas. The St. Vincent nurses initially rejected the union by a narrow margin in 1999, but the National Labor Relations Board ordered a new election after finding that management intimidation may have influenced the vote. The union won the second election in May, 2000, 358-316.

From that point on, nurses such as Maddux and Sexton, who identify many of the same problems with their industry, have been headed toward the black-and-white choice that could come this week.

Through 53 bargaining sessions, the issues separating the sides from agreeing to their first nursing labor contract have diminished to a contentious few.

"Far more issues have been agreed to [than remain]," Mosley said. "The issues remaining are primarily economic issues. There is still a bit of a gap between what the union wants and [what the system can give]."

The union charges that patient care is the main issue, with management unilaterally changing work rules regardless of patient care quality or input from nurses. But pay remains a major sticking point, with the union demanding annual raises based on seniority and merit.

How many nurses will end up on each side of the stark choice they face is anybody's guess, and that's making life a. little harder these days for hospital managers. Unless individual nurses voluntarily tell them, St. Vincent officials don't know -- are, in fact, barred by law from knowing -- who will strike and who won't, Mosley said.

The union is well aware of this "leverage," a term used in a Local 22 communication to members.

Karon Maddux isn't bothering to shield her intentions.

"As soon as I heard that they were trying to get the union [to represent the nurses] ... I started thinking what I could do to help," Maddux said.

If what she can do includes going on strike, she's ready.

"We're the ones that finally said enough's enough," she said. "We expressed our concerns over and over, and nobody's done anything to rectify our concerns. We don't feel that we can give the patient care. that we want to give. People aren't going into nursing.

"If we don't do something now to make things better for nurses, we're not going to have [enough nurses entering the field to even maintain the current staffing levels.] When you're working on a general nursing floor and you've got eight to. 10 [nonambulatory] patients under your care, you can't give good care," she said.

But Margaret Sexton also already has made her choice.

"I don't feel the need for a union," she said. "I have always been able to go to my supervisor or director. Even if the problem wasn't. solved, I felt like I was listened to.

"I would never strike," she said. "I just think there's no place for that."

And St. Vincent is counting on precisely that if a strike occurs, Maddux claimed.

"[Striking is] a pretty hard decision for nurses to come to," she said. "I think the hospital's banking on that."

RELATED ARTICLE: Recent Nursing Labor Disputes

* St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center, Long Island, N.Y.: More than 500 nurses have been on strike against Catholic Health Services of Long Island since Nov 26 Negotiations between the New York State Nurses Association and CHS broke down Jan. 25 over mandatory overtime

NYSNA has asked local residents to refuse to donate to the Bishop's Annual Appeal until the strike is resolved, even supplying a scolding sample reply letter explaining why the donation. is being withheld.

* Oregon Health & Sciences University, Portland, Ore.: OHSU nurses ended a 56-day strike on Feb. 12, voting 736-118 to accept a new contract. The Oregon Nurses Association demanded nearly 19 percent in raises over two years and better health insurance options, the Associated Press reported. The signed agreement calls for a 20.5 percent raise over three years.

Members of The Washington State Nurses Association joined the Oregon nurses on the picket line.
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Comment:St. Vincent prepares for state's first nurses' strike.
Author:Whitsett, Jack
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 25, 2002
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