With administrators trying to muzzle members and pledging to spend freely on scabs, health care workers at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia began a strike Wednesday.
The hospital’s 1,000 nurses and 500 professional workers, members of PASNAP (Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals), have been working without a contract for six months. Members reaffirmed their commitment to the strike in a 980 to 50 vote Monday.
The hospital workers see straight through Temple’s crocodile tears of financial hardship. The hospital has pledged to maintain all patient services during the strike and will employ agency labor at $10,000 a week, a rate more than six times higher than unionized staff. The outsized pay for scabs was reported by Temple nurses approached by contractors last week.
Serious issues divide the two sides. Most disturbingly, the hospital insists there will be no agreement without its “non-disparagement” clause, which states that members, staff, and officers “shall not publicly criticize, ridicule or make any statement which disparages or is derogatory of Temple.” While paying lip service to our professional role as patient advocates, the hospital maintains there is never a need to go public to protect patient safety.
PASNAP, however, supports staffing ratio legislation currently pending in the Pennsylvania legislature and anticipates that members and officers may testify at public hearings to give first-hand accounts of unsafe situations, in order to explain the vital need for such legislation. Like most unionized health care institutions, Temple considers its staffing levels a management prerogative and therefore a non-mandatory item of bargaining—and has refused to negotiate any staffing language.
A FIGHT FOR SURVIVALTemple’s last offer would double health care premiums for nurses, triple them for the technical/professional staff, freeze wages for the first year of the contract, and reduce hard-won wage differentials for undesirable shifts and 24-hour on-call rates.
The hospital unilaterally and illegally eliminated the long-standing dependent tuition benefit last year and intends to keep it out of any future agreement. The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board ruled in the union’s favor on this issue in January, but Temple has appealed, now fighting not only its employees but also the Labor Board. Clearly, the hospital administration prefers to spend Pennsylvanians’ tax dollars on lawyers rather than on caregivers at the bedside.
The hospital also is attempting to constrain union power. Temple is demanding an end to fair share or agency fee payments, effectively destroying the closed shop. Management offered the nurses a three-year agreement and the technical/professional staff a four-year agreement, to strip the common expiration date from the two locals.
Further, its final offer gives hospital administration the right to change or eliminate health plans at any time and to hike premiums annually. This language takes health coverage outside the bounds of contract negotiations and into the realm of management policy, over which it has sole discretion.
The administration has repeatedly cited the economic downturn to rationalize the concessions it’s demanding. Though the Health System ended the fiscal year with a small deficit, largely due to costs associated with closing its Northeastern hospital, the flagship Temple University Hospital came out $16.5 million ahead. Of the $178 million allotted to the university by the state last year, the hospital’s share totaled about $30 million.
Back in September, the membership rejected Temple’s final offer by a vote of 1051 to 7. Individual members have spent the last six months preparing financially for a strike—saving tax refund checks, taking second jobs, paying utility bills ahead, stocking up the freezer, transferring families to spouses’ health insurance plans, and deferring non-essential spending.
GETTING UNDER THEIR SKINCollectively, the union has been busy as well. PASNAP has unfair labor practice charges pending against the hospital for unilateral changes made to the professional/technical staff regarding vacations and holidays, surveillance of the membership, threatening discipline for wearing union stickers, and preventing members wearing union T-shirts and buttons from entering the building. Members and union staff have invested countless hours organizing student and community support, membership rallies, and even a “bake sale for tuition” at a March 2 university trustees meeting.
The Temple University student government Senate voted to support the union and members of the school’s Student Labor Action Project have been a welcome, vocal presence at many PASNAP events, irritating the administration enough to have campus police rip up the students’ signs as they attempted to deliver petitions to university leaders in early March.
PASNAP is not going quietly into this strike. A noontime rally drew 1,200 the first day of the strike, and further demonstrations are expected at the city council, at Temple University, and at the home of the university’s president, Ann Weaver Hart. Those actions build on a string of loud, public protests, including a big March 19 rally in front of the hospital, where AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka declared “we will not allow Temple Hospital, an institution supported by taxpayer funds, to thumb their noses at these workers or the union movement.”
Marty Harrison is a Temple staff nurse and executive board member at the hospital's PASNAP local.
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