SANTA FE, N.M. — The first shots were fired Thursday in the latest round of employee contract negotiations with Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, with union officials claiming that hospital administrators are aiming to break the local union.
Hospital officials flatly denied that accusation.
But concerns on the labor side are so great that the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees has sent a team of its people into New Mexico to talk with and build solidarity among the membership of District 1199 New Mexico, according to Stewart Acuff, national organizing director.
“The national union is as serious about this matter as we can be,” he said. “It’s very rare for us to pick up a team of eight or nine people and all go to the same place.”
In a news conference outside the hospital Thursday morning, Acuff called the Christus leadership “rapacious corporate chieftains in Texas” who were looking to drain money from Santa Fe and northern New Mexico.
“This is a national fight that Christus is not going to win,” Acuff concluded.
But Christus St. Vincent officials said the claimed attempt to break the union is “completely untrue.”
Lillian Montoya, the hospital’s vice president of public policy, said in a written statement, “We are very disappointed in this allegation as we feel that recent negotiations have been thoughtful and constructive. All hospital proposals so far support our union employees while strengthening our ability to remain a viable hospital.”
Bruce Tassin, CEO and president, added, “As with all negotiations, there is a back and forth before agreement is reached.” He said improvement in the quality of patient care is a priority and that he did not intend to negotiate contract details “in the public sphere.”
The union has two contracts, one for nurses and another for technical workers, that expire July 31. Six negotiating sessions have been held since April, and more are planned for today and Saturday, according to Fonda Osborn, president of 1199 NM.
She said contract language presented by the hospital administration seems designed to neutralize the union’s contact with its members and its representation of them over what continues to be their major issue: staffing levels.
For one thing, the hospital’s proposal would eliminate a staffing council made up of employees and administrators, she said. While ultimate power on the council rests in the hospital administration’s hands, the council did give workers a chance to get information about actual staffing levels at the hospital, Osborn said, adding that she fears they would be left in the dark about the overall picture otherwise.
The council did develop a good staffing plan, she added, but claimed that actual numbers of people providing care to patients rarely have met the levels in that plan.
The administration also has offered contract language that would call for disciplinary action to be taken against workers who make any unauthorized disclosure or make copies of records on certain information, including staffing data, she said. “They are taking away our ability to advocate,” Osborn said.
She said the proposed contract language would severely restrict union representatives’ ability to meet with or distribute information to workers on hospital grounds. “The workers couldn’t even carry a leaflet into the hospital,” she contended.
Christus St. Vincent’s Montoya said the administration supports up to 20 hours per week for union members to access employees, as long as it didn’t disrupt patient care.
The administration’s statement responding to the union did not directly address whether it was trying to limit access to staffing data, noting that information is being provided as required under the current contract.
“Our staffing plan follows a standard practice, operating at national norms,” Montoya said. “Our clinical outcomes have actually improved as we’ve become more efficient in our staffing.”
While negotiations two years ago leading up to the present contract seemed designed to push workers to the brink of striking, Osborn and Acuff said, this time they see the administration’s strategy as one of attrition, to take away the union’s ability to be effective.
That would lead more workers to drop their union membership and allow the hospital to withdraw recognition of the union, they said.
Santa Fe’s hospital was the first in the Southwest to have its workers represented by a union; the local chapter will celebrate its 40th anniversary in November, according to Osborn.