Some 2,000 members of the Service Employees International Union in California last week ratified an employment contract with Vencor/Hillhaven, ending a long campaign by the union to win concessions from the nation's second-largest nursing home company.
The contract includes a substantial pay increase, calls for improvements in working conditions and allows the union to organize nonunion workers. Significantly, the contract also introduces a worker-management patient-care committee.
Susan McPherson, vice president of Vencor/Hillhaven's West Region, said: "We got a contract that now will protect us from strikes and pickets. We were able to give our employees a raise."
She said that after two years of "unusually difficult" negotiations a contract was finalized when the union dropped a demand that would have modified the standard union election process.
While current practice involves a secret ballot, the SEIU wanted to have a majority of employees at nonorganized nursing homes sign cards.
"We would not agree to that," McPherson said.
The agreement was reached May 18, and union voting took place the week of May 20. The contract covers about 2,000 licensed vocational nurses, certified nurse assistants, and laundry, dietary and housekeeping workers at 25 nursing homes in Northern and Southern California.
David Snapp, orchestrator of the SEIU's Dignity Campaign in Washington, said the union "made progress in the areas we wanted to make progress on," especially on three principal points: "We got more money. We got a joint patient-care committee for the first time with this company. And we got some agreement with them on conduct of organizing campaigns in new units."
Workers will get 7% raises each year for the three-year duration of the contract.
The patient-care committee will convene at least once a month, and it will consist of three labor representatives and three company representatives. It will discuss such matters as the availability of safety equipment, staffing levels and overall acuity in a particular unit. It has the power to make recommendations, but the company decides whether to carry them out or not.
The union had embraced a barrage of publicity-seeking tactics, including demonstrations, newspaper ads and traffic stoppages, to put pressure on the company.
Lisa Hubbard, an SEIU Local 250 spokeswoman, said the corporate campaign against Vencor played a significant role in forcing the company to bargain. "In the Bay Area, consciousness has been raised. We forged alliances that we expect to bring to bear in other campaigns, as well as in ongoing work that SEIU expects to do in healthcare and for consumers."
She said a new group of senior citizen activists has learned to focus on the nursing home industry, especially subacute care.
McPherson said of her company that "after having operated in California for 30 years with an excellent reputation and patient care, it's very distressing to have your reputation damaged. Our direct referral sources know the quality of our care; they saw the publicity for what it was. For the general public it attached a negative image where none had existed before."
Snapp concluded: "I hope in the aggregate this helps us get on a better track with this company. Right now we're hoping for a period of less-pitched hostilities."