The number of strikes by unionized healthcare workers increased dramatically last year to match the highest one-year strike total during the past eight years, according to data obtained by MODERN HEALTHCARE from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
While healthcare workers generally were more militant last year, the level of work stoppages by hospital workers held steady, the data showed.
MODERN HEALTHCARE requested the data through the federal Freedom of Information Act. The data cover strikes during the federal government's fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 1993.
The FMCS is a federal agency that monitors labor disputes. Federal law requires unions to notify the FMCS of a strike. Compliance with the law isn't universal, and the actual number of strikes against healthcare providers may be higher. Also, the FMCS doesn't have data on threatened or actual work stoppages by non-union workers.
According to FMCS data, at least 42 labor strikes occurred in the healthcare industry in fiscal 1993. That's up more than 50% from the 27 healthcare work stoppages in fiscal 1992. The healthcare industry figures are for work stoppages in all settings, including hospitals, nursing homes and outpatient clinics.
At hospitals, however, unionized workers walked off the job at just 12 facilities last year-the same number of facilities that were hit with strikes during the previous year (See chart).
In fact, absent a one-day nurses' strike at five New York hospitals coordinated by the same union, the number of work stoppages at hospitals actually declined to its lowest level since 1985. The New York nurses were represented by 1199, National Health and Human Service Employees Union.
The flat work stoppage activity at hospitals isn't surprising, said G. Roger King, a healthcare labor attorney with Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue in Columbus, Ohio.
"There's a great deal of instability in healthcare right now, and employees are reluctant to rock the boat for fear of losing their jobs," Mr. King said.
A recent survey sponsored by MODERN HEALTHCARE found that 27% of responding hospitals are reducing their work forces (Dec. 20/27, 1993, p. 49).
The longest hospital strike occurred at Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, Ill., where more than 200 nurses walked the picket lines for 63 days. The nurses returned to work in March after accepting an across-the-board 3% annual wage increase. They had been seeking at least 5% (March 29, 1993, p. 14).
Hospital employers came out winners after at least two other strikes.
A 39-day strike by 266 nurses at Kadlec Medical Center in Richland, Wash., ended in October after the nurses dropped their demand that the hospital continue a practice under which nurses would be paid for 42 hours of work for working three 12-hour shifts, or 36 hours.
The practice put the hospital at a competitive disadvantage with other area hospitals, said Tom Stegbauer, Kadlec's associate administrator.
The nurses settled for a 2% increase in their wage scale for each year of the new three-year contract, which was effective Oct. 1, 1993. With the first 2% hike, hourly wages for staff nurses range from $15.20 to $21.12.
And, the National Labor Relations Board has scheduled a union decertification election at Community Memorial Hospital in Hamilton, N.Y., for Jan. 27. A three-day strike last August by about 100 licensed practical nurses, technicians and other employees represented by the Service Employees International Union shut down the 84-bed hospital, said David Felton, Community Memorial's administrator.
The divisive strike didn't result in many concessions to the unionized workers, and all sides are getting tired of repeating the same labor dispute every two to three years, Mr. Felton said.