A contract ratification vote by registered nurses at Alaska's largest hospital has brought down the curtain on one of the longest-running labor disputes in U.S. healthcare.
On May 10, members of the Alaska Nurses Association voted by a 10-to-1 margin to accept a contract offer from Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, ending a 25-day strike. The strike was the culmination of labor-management friction that began in 1993 when the nurses started organizing a bargaining unit. Their efforts were waylaid by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that virtually halted all nurse-organizing for several years. Resolving this case was the American Nurses Association's No. 1 priority.
Anna Gilmore Hall, director of labor relations at the ANA in Washington, said, "The extended fight that the hospital put up to prevent these nurses from organizing, and then getting a contract, didn't work."
She added: "I hope hospital administrators will think again about how they spend patient-care dollars on protracted legal fights to prevent nurses from organizing."
The nurses association spent at least $500,000 on the fight, she said.
The new contract yields the nurses a minimum pay increase of 5.7%. Wages at the hospital have been frozen since 1995 because the National Labor Relations Board forbids wage inducements while a labor settlement is being negotiated.
"There are people who aren't getting anything for the five years except the 5.7%," said Sue Putnam, labor field counsel at the ANA.
"This contract was never over wages. That was a secondary consideration for them." The more important consideration, she said, was inserting language into the contract that permits the nurses a voice in setting quality of patient care.
The hospital will now have an acuity advisory committee to look into nurse-staffing ratios. Any major change in staffing must be approved by the acuity committee, a significant step from the nurses' point of view.
Securing a voice for nurses in determining proper staffing levels is one of the ANA's most important political goals, as well as a goal of its West Coast rival, the California Nurses Association. The CNA last year got such language inserted into its contract with Kaiser Permanente after more than a year of disruptive short strikes.
Janet Oates, Providence spokeswoman, said the hospital considers the new contract "very fair to both sides. It has given the nurses a formal process to give input on patient-care issues." The acuity committee will have four representatives from management and four from the union. The details haven't been spelled out yet, she said.
The bargaining unit includes 750 nurses. Their original representational election in 1994 was uncertain when the Supreme Court ruled the same year that supervisors could not be included in bargaining units. The hospital argued that charge nurses were supervisors and couldn't be included.
Since the exclusion of charge nurses would have eviscerated any bargaining power, the union fought the hospital in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and won in August 1997. The hospital declined to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The 222-bed hospital is owned by Seattle-based Sisters of Providence Health System.