Unionized doctors in Los Angeles have won a key battle in contentious contract talks with county officials that have dragged on for about 18 months.
In a nonbinding ruling, an arbitrator criticized the county's proposal to transfer about 800 employed physicians to a new benefits package that the union doctors believe offers less pension compensation.
Union officials, who say the county's stance is designed to punish physicians for joining the union in May 1999, hailed the ruling as an important precedent for future labor negotiations.
"This will apply to thousands of doctors who work for county governments and who may choose to join unions in the future," said Elias Castillo, a spokesman for the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, the Oakland, Calif.-based group that represents the doctors. "This sets a precedent that county governments can't be vindictive."
Arbitrator Michael Prihar, acting as a fact-finder in the impasse, wrote in his opinion, "The actual negative impact of the county's proposal on specific individuals would be very significant. It inevitably would result in a decline in the morale of (affected) employees."
He recommended that the doctors be allowed to keep their existing benefits but should relinquish their participation in the 401(k) plan after receiving a one-time, 3% salary increase as compensation. He also recommended a 9% pay increase over three years.
Reiko Kageyama, who is negotiating the contract for Los Angeles County, said the board of supervisors is now reviewing the opinion. She said the county is seeking to place the doctors in the same benefits package provided to all county employees who are not represented by unions. That package, she said, is different but not inferior.
Joe Bader, the union group's regional administrator, called her statement "disingenuous," claiming that the county had never before forced a nonrepresented group to accept a new benefits package after voting for collective bargaining. Bader said the county's position on the benefits package was the principal stumbling block in talks aimed at reaching an agreement between the union and the county. He said his group would now urge the county's board of supervisors to send their negotiators back to the bargaining table.
Robert Weinmann, a neurologist who is president of the labor group, accused the county of using the issue of benefits as a "union-busting technique."
"We believe this is attempted retribution because the doctors joined the union," he said. "Well, now the doctors must know why they had to vote for the union, because this is exactly the kind of arbitrary and capricious decisionmaking that could be foisted upon their heads if they were not properly represented."
Belinda Wu, a pediatrician who helped lead the union's organizing effort, said, "We are gratified by the arbitrator's ruling that we did not deserve to be punished for unionizing by having our benefits reduced. We hope that the county will now change its bargaining position based on the decision so we can settle our contract and get back to treating patients."
The union group, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, represents about 550 university teaching physicians and about 240 doctors working in Los Angeles County's public health clinics as well as the sheriff's and coroner's offices. The affiliate has about 6,000 physician-members in total.
The employed physicians' victory follows close on the heels of the American Medical Association's decision to abandon plans to organize private-sector physicians, including house staff, because of a recent Supreme Court ruling. But Physicians for Responsible Negotiation, the AMA's union offshoot, said it would continue to attempt to organize physicians in the public sector-the same market niche Weinmann's labor group is aggressively courting.