Over 300 hospital support workers represented by SEIU Local 49 went on strike Oct. 28-30 at McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center in Springfield.
McKenzie-Willamette is part of Community Health Systems (CHS), a for-profit hospital chain that has a record of union disputes and labor law violations around the country. Local 49 represents service and maintenance and technical workers at the hospital, including housekeepers, cafeteria workers, certified nursing assistants, respiratory therapists, x-ray and emergency room technicians, and other technical and support occupations.
The three-day strike was called ostensibly to protest labor law violations at McKenzie-Willamette. That’s because U.S. labor law allows employers to permanently replace strikers, except when the strike is to protest labor law violations (known as unfair labor practices). Local 49 filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), including accusations that union reps were barred from new employee orientation, and that employees were made to sign a sheet if they wanted to attend a union informational picket. The NLRB issued a formal complaint Aug. 29, and scheduled a hearing to take place in January. And the hospital has still not complied with a judge’s order in an earlier case over refusing to provide relevant information to the union in bargaining.
But the crux of the labor dispute is the lack of progress in negotiations on a new contract. Workers have been without a union contract since the last one expired Dec. 31, 2013. The two sides have been meeting since Oct. 17, 2013, entered federal mediation in the summer, and last met Oct. 17, 2014.
In bargaining, the union has proposed a three-year contract with 2.5 percent raises each year, and no changes to the health benefit. Management’s proposal is a two-year contract with raises of 1.2 percent the first year and 1.5 percent the second — as well as 4 or 9 percent increases to employee premiums while also increasing co-pays and deductibles.
“This is a hugely profitable hospital, and they can afford to do better by the workers and the community,” said Local 49 Healthcare Division Director Steven Ward. “At this point, they’re extracting profits from the community and sending them out of state, and we don’t think that’s good for anybody.”
Thanks to the 10-day legally-required strike notice, the hospital remained open, using replacement workers and managers to do the work of strikers. Some replacement workers were flown in from other states, and were put up at Candlelight Suites hotel in Eugene by the company. Members of Oregon Nurses Association also worked during the strike, as their union contract doesn’t allow them to honor other unions’ strike picket lines, though some members wore stickers in support and came out to the picket line.
But Local 49 spokesperson Jesse Stemmler called the strike a success, citing picket line support from local unions and elected leaders. Congressman Peter DeFazio visited strikers on the picket line, and so did Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson, state senator Lee Beyer, and state representatives Phil Barnhart, Paul Holvey, and Rob Nosse.
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