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Breakthrough on UC nurses contract dispute

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Friday May 24, 2002

The University of California has offered to curtail mandatory overtime for its nurses and shift from a merit pay system to one based on seniority, marking a major shift in the contract squabble between the two sides. 

“The proposal we gave them represents significant movement on their priority items,” said UC spokesman Paul Schwartz. “The ball’s in their court.” 

UC made the offer, which also includes 19 to 25 percent pay increases over three years, but does not move on union demands for negotiated nurse-to-patient ratios, on Wednesday. 

The university made the proposal public Thursday afternoon, just as negotiations began. As of the Planet’s deadline Thursday night, there was no indication of an agreement and the union still planned to engage in a one-day strike May 29. 

The university is facing mounting political pressure to resolve the dispute.  

Twenty-four legislators submitted a letter to UC Monday morning asserting that “the registered nurses of the UC system are its backbone” and warning “if they are not treated fairly and leave their jobs, the whole system will be at risk.” 

“Legislators and elected officials, because of our relationship with the state, are clearly a key constituency,” acknowledged Schwartz. “But the bottom line is that we, first and foremost, are trying to get to a settlement that serves patients and serves employees.” 

Charles Idelson, spokesman for the California Nurses Association, which represents the 8,000 nurses at UC hospitals and student health care centers, trumpeted the university’s shift on merit pay. 

“There has been an historic breakthrough in the notorious merit structure,” said Idelson. “It took the power of 8,000 nurses threatening to strike to finally knock some sense into the university.” 

The union has long contended that the merit-based pay system – rooted in evaluations of employee performance – is subject to the arbitrary analysis of managers. They have called for the “step-based” model, embraced by the university Wednesday, that would pay nurses according to experience. 

Before this week university officials have defended merit pay, arguing that the system encourages quality care and keeps the UC hospitals competitive. 

“Taking the union’s stated priorities to heart, we reconsidered that,” said Schwartz. 

Schwartz added that the university will retain the right to make lump-sum payments to nurses, on top of their step pay, for quality service.  

Ideson said he was skeptical of the university’s proposal to require overtime only when a patient’s health may be at risk or in the event of an emergency. Idelson said the offer was filled with “significant loopholes.” 

“What constitutes an emergency is not some manager’s failure to plan properly,” he said. “An emergency is an earthquake.” 

Schwartz contended that the offer marked a significant movement toward the union, and said he expected the California Nurses Association to bargain in good faith.  

The university is holding fast on its refusal to set nurse-patient ratios in the contract. The state legislature recently mandated ratios and the California Department of Health is working on regulations that would set the actual figures. Schwartz said UC will wait on the state figures, which should be issued by July 2003, and will not agree to independent ratios in a labor contract. 

Donna Nicholas, a registered nurse at UC Berkeley’s student health center who serves on the negotiating team, said the union wants to lock down ratios in the contract because the hospital industry is working to “water down” the state ratios due out next year. “This has huge implications for the health of California residents,” Nicholas said. 

Schwartz said the university would consider a May 29 strike a violation of the state’s Higher Education Employee Relations Act since the union has not exhausted all negotiating options. UC plans to seek a temporary restraining order against the nurses to prevent the strike. 

“We disagree with their position,” Ideson responded. “In our interpretation, it is absolutely a legal strike.” 

The university may also sue the union for financial losses resulting from the strike, Schwartz said. The university has already begun to divert patients in preparation for May 29, he said, and may have to cancel some surgical procedures. “All of that adds up to a significant impact – on patients, on communities and on UC,” he said. 

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