News of labor harmony on the West Coast is paired with labor discord on the East Coast. Catholic Healthcare West, San Francisco, and California's largest healthcare union reached a major contract agreement covering 14,000 healthcare workers at 28 hospitals in a deal designed to set a new standard for hospital labor talks statewide. The four-year master contract, which replaces 14 separate contracts between the two parties, guarantees Service Employees International Union workers an average wage increase of 20% and other significant benefit improvements. CHW also agreed to allow caregivers a greater voice in staffing decisions and to create a $4 million training fund to help workers return to school and advance their careers. In addition, CHW and SEIU agreed to work together to defend SB 2, the state's controversial mandatory-insurance law that opponents are seeking to repeal through a referendum on the November ballot. SEIU reached a similar deal with Kaiser Permanente in 1997 and with Tenet Healthcare Corp.'s hospitals in California and some of its Florida hospitals last year, but the union remains embroiled in bitter contract talks with Sutter Health and Daughters of Charity Health System.
Meanwhile, nurses at 1,039-bed Bergen Regional Medical Center in Paramus, N.J., went on strike this morning after reaching an impasse on staffing ratios, salaries and pension benefits. The action involves some 425 nurses represented by Health Professionals and Allied Employees, or HPAE. Bergen Regional has brought in more than 100 replacement nurses, according to HPAE. The strike was "the last straw. We wouldn't have done this unless we felt certain that the quality of care was in jeopardy because of the hospital's refusal to address the shortage of nurses and other healthcare workers," the union said in a news release. Five other New Jersey hospitals whose workers are represented by HPAE reached contract agreements before a Monday night strike deadline. Hospital officials said in a taped message that the walkout had no impact on services and that they would continue to negotiate with the union in good faith. -- by Laura B. Benko and Cinda Becker