Unions Score Victories Amidst Tough Economy

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday August 28, 2008 - 09:18:00 AM

Despite troubling economic news nationally, last week witnessed two major advances on the Berkeley labor front and a protest by city workers in a neighboring city: 

• Registered nurses approved a new contract with the city’s two Alta Bates Summit medical facilities [Alta Bates and Herrick Hospital] along with Oakland’s Summit Medical Center. 

• UC Berkeley postdoctoral students won state recognition of the United Auto Workers (UAW) as their bargaining unit. 

• Emeryville city employees held a protest outside City Hall Aug. 19, where they were joined by supporters from Berkeley and Oakland. Members of the Service Employees International Union have been working without a contract since last year. 

Meanwhile, journalists at Dean Singleton’s Bay Area News Group-EB continue their efforts to reach a contract with Me-diaNews Group, the newspaper colossus with more combined circulation in the Bay Area and Los Angeles Basin than the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times combined. 


Hospital pact 

Negotiators from Sutter Health’s Alta Bates Summit facilities met with their counterparts from the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA) with a federal mediator in charge of the session, leading to a settlement in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 20. 

The new agreement, which runs through June 30, 2011, caps a 15-month dispute that has included three walkouts, the longest lasting 10 days. 

CNA representative and Liz Jacobs, R.N., said the agreement will be sent to members for ratification in the next two or three weeks. The vote would be earlier if CNA were not conducting simultaneous negotiations with other hospitals owned by Sutter throughout Northern California. 

The accord gives union members a 22 percent pay increase through the course of the agreement, including a 5 percent hike already given in May. The agreement “gives us a salary range on a par with the top-of-the-line Bay Area hospitals,” Jacobs said. 

The nurse activist said the main concerns of members involved patient safety, including staffing levels and adequate breaks and meal times. 

The Berkeley City Council—which includes Alta Bates R.N. Max Anderson—had supported the union. 

The same day the Berkeley settlement was reached, nurses at Marin General Hospital also reached an agreement with that Sutter-owned facility. 

Anderson said that as of Monday he hadn’t seen the proposed agreement, “but hopefully it’s better than their last ‘final offer,’” he said. “It’s been a long struggle and it took several short strikes to bring it this far.” 

The medical center “is extremely pleased to have come to a tentative agreement on a contract that provides our valued nurses with exceptional wages and benefits,” said Carolyn Kemp, the Alta Bates Summit media relations officer. 


Campus union 

Spokesperson for the budding union of university researchers is Matthew O’Connor, a Berkeley postdoctoral student in bioengineering currently working on muscle stem cell research. 

The state Public Employee Relations Board has certified that a majority of the eligible 5,000 postdoctoral researchers statewide have signed union cards. 

The UC Berkeley campus is home to about 1,000 eligible postdocs out of a total of about 1,100, O’Connor said. 

The next step for the PRO/LAW (the PRO is for Postdoctoral Researchers Organize) will be setting up an organizing committee, including the election of officers. Then it’s on to negotiating with the university. 

“This is the first postdoc union in California, and only the second one in the country,” O’Connor said. 

The only possible hitch would be a legal challenge to the recognition, he said. 

The successful organizing effort marked the second time the UAW had tried for recognition at UC Berkeley. The first attempt, in 2006, collapsed amid charges and countercharges by both sides after organizers said they had achieved the necessary number of signatures. 


Pressing issues 

Another major legal struggle that is shaping up for the months ahead is the status of editorial employees who work for media mogul Dean Singleton’s Me-diaNews newspapers operating under the collective mantle of BANG-EB (Bay Area News Group-East Bay). 

Despite the name, the group also includes the San Mateo Times. 

The union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, and an investigation is underway, said Karl Fischer, who chairs the Media Guild’s bargaining unit. 

Meanwhile, Fischer and his team were scheduled to hold their first talks with company officials Wednesday to begin negotiating the first-ever contract that will include journalists from the Contra Costa Times. 

Covering newsrooms from Hayward to Vallejo, including the Oakland Tribune, BANG-EB was formed after Singleton added the Times and San Jose Mercury-News to his regional portfolio, buying them from the Sacramento-based McClatchy chain. 

Severing the San Jose paper from the new unit and adding the non-union Contra Costa Times a year ago gave Singleton a non-union majority editorial staff, allowing him to end Guild representation at the Tribune and other shops. 

The union responded with an organizing campaign backed by the national, winning the requisite majority by a 104-92 decision June 13. 

A month later, BANG-EB eliminated 29 positions of the bargaining group’s 230 jobs, including those of many union activists. One was reporter Sara Steffens, chair of the Guild’s bargaining unit. 

“We felt that some of those who were laid off were unfairly chosen because of their union activities,” Fischer said. 

In the weeks since the layoffs, union representatives have been meeting with staffs of the individual papers, seeking to work out local issues as well as to agree on bargaining points for contract talks, he said. 

The economic crisis that has hit newsrooms across the nation had led to a major decline in the number of working reporters at Bay Area papers. The San Jose Mercury-News has cut two of every three newsroom jobs in the last four years, and the San Francisco Chronicle has lost about half its newsroom since 2000. 

Between layoffs, buyouts and attrition, Fischer estimates that the Contra Costa Times has lost about 100 of its 360 journalists and newsroom managers. 

Marshall Anstandig, the in-house labor lawyer who represents MediaNews, said that because of the current volatility in the news business, “our expectation is for a contract that gives us the flexibility to move as things change. 

“While in the old days, five- six- and even 10-year agreements were common, nowadays it’s hard to say we’ll even be in the same platform in six months,” he said, referring to the thus-far only partially successful transition from print to the Internet realm. 

The McClatchy chain recently announced a one-year, systemwide pay freeze for all employees, coming just a few weeks after 86 job cuts at the flagship Sacramento Bee. With a second round of layoffs in the works, the Bee sent all its staff a memo offering a voluntary separation package. 

The memo cited recent bankruptcies and closures of major advertisers, including Mervyn’s and Linens ’N’ Things.