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Management at Saint John's Health Center was found guilty of illegal union busting. Nurses rallied at the hospital on Thursday, calling on management to allow them to hold an election to see if colleagues favor a union. Councilman Kevin McKeown (far right) joined with the nurses, saying 'Union busting is disgusting.'

(photo by Kevin Herrera)

MID CITY — Saint John’s Medical Center officials rejected an offer by former State Sen. Sheila Kuehl to help mediate a labor dispute between hospital management and its nurses Monday, two days before a planned strike and lockout.

Instead, management wrote in a statement that it would be using a professional mediator from a national association to continue contract negotiations.

“We appreciate Sen. Kuehl offering to serve as a mediator,” the statement reads. “However, a professional mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services has been assigned to this matter. Accordingly, we are respectfully declining her offer.”

The message comes at a tense time in the negotiations between the nurses and the management. Nurses declared a walkout for Wednesday, and management responded by posting notice of a four-day lockout, which would prevent those nurses from returning to work for four days after their protest.

Those plans were put on hold after Kuehl signaled her desire to intervene in an e-mail on Sunday.

In that e-mail, Kuehl proposed that both sides put aside their walkouts and lockouts in favor of coming back to the table to hash out a fair contract.

The CNA responded affirmatively within the hour.

“Our goal from the beginning was not to have a strike or lockout, but to reach a contract we can all be proud of. CNA therefore accepts Sen. Kuehl’s offer, and hereby gives notice of the withdrawal of our strike notice for June 13, 2012,” union representatives wrote.

Management at Saint John’s has been in contract negotiations with its nurses since September 2011 after nurses voted in May to join the California Nurses Association, a union that represents nurses throughout the state.

Nurses are seeking higher wages commensurate with pay at other hospitals that are also represented by the CNA.

They also want assurances that the contract will have language that only counts registered nurses in state-mandated calculations that set how many patients one medical professional should be treating.

The ratios differ based on the severity of the patient’s illness. Some cases require a nurse for every patient. In other situations, one nurse can care for five patients.

Saint John’s management has so far refused to put specific language in the contract to require that only registered nurses count toward the nurse-to-patient ratio, which would leave the door open to using licensed vocational nurses or nursing assistants to pad the ratios, said Lizbeth Baker-Wade, a nurse at Saint John’s.

That’s a problem because registered nurses have ultimate responsibility over the patients that nurses with lesser licensing requirements treat and care for, meaning extra work would be piled upon fewer supervising nurses.

California is the only state that has a ratio law. That is, in large part, due to Kuehl. In the late 1990s, Kuehl introduced a bill to establish nurse-to-patient ratios.

To back up the bill, she submitted proof that there’s a direct relationship between the number of patients a nurse cares for and increased infections, higher mortality rates, increased illnesses and errors.

Baker-Wade called Saint John’s rejection of Kuehl’s offer “disappointing.”

“We need to get them back to the table and get the respect that we deserve, because we deserve it,” Baker-Wade said. “We take very good care of this community.”

Nurses at Saint John’s have been trying to organize for over 10 years with little success until last May.

In 2009, the National Labor Relations Board investigated Saint John’s for allegedly violating federal laws by questioning registered nurses about their organizing and forbidding them from wearing ribbons signaling their support for a union.

Despite the difficulties, winning the right to unionize has been well worth it, Baker-Wade said.

“I believe we are much better off just being part of this organization than we were before,” Baker-Wade said. “Absolutely, without a doubt, in every way.”

ashley@smdp.com

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