LOS ANGELES (CNS) — On the day members of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West started a weeklong "unfair labor practices" strike at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, top hospital officials Monday publicly questioned the union's good faith in contract negotiations.
The SEIU-UHW, citing "unfair labor practices as well as employee and patient safety concerns, short-staffing and low wages," walked off the job at 5 a.m. Monday.
The union represents some 2,000 certified nursing assistants, surgical technicians, sterile processing technicians, transporters, environmental service workers, plant operation workers and food service technicians. The hospital has about 14,000 employees in all.
Doctors, registered nurses and nurse practitioners are not part of the union and did not walk off the job — and Andy Ortiz, Cedars-Sinai's chief human resources officer, reported the hospital was fully functioning and not postponing any surgeries or clinic appointments.
But on Day 1 of the union's walkout, upper management went on the rhetorical offensive against the strikers.
"Unfortunately, the leadership of SEIU-UHW threatened to strike even before we sat down to exchange full proposals in early March," CEO and President Tom Priselac said Monday in a letter to patients and employees.
"During lengthy bargaining sessions, it became clear to us that union leaders never intended to reach agreement with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on a new contract without a strike. This was made clearer to us over the weekend when the union broke off negotiations without ever responding to our latest offer and instead decided to proceed with its strike."
Priselac also wrote that he hoped "to avoid a strike with contract offers that would continue to reward our represented employees with market- leading pay — including substantial pay increases — for their hard work, excellent performance and dedication to the community."
Later Monday, Ortiz echoed that tone, saying, "The ... thing that's important to know is that we're really disappointed with the union. We have a very long relationship with them. For the last 35 years, we have achieved agreement on 11 different agreements. And what we know this time is before we even provided a full offer on the table, the union was taught they were threatening strike. So we knew that that was a sign that they were set to strike before we could even come to agreement."
Ortiz added, "They do deserve more money, which is why we have offered 16% increase over a three-year period, which coincides with market leading pay practices."
Union representative Renee Saldaña told City News Service the 16% figure was never presented to the union for all of its workers.
"They have not said that in any proposal they have given us," Saldaña said. "They made a proposal that was lower than that for half the workers on the first day and then moved backward.
"Their offer does not keep up with inflation and it leaves hundreds of critical healthcare workers making less than the minimum wage rates announced by Target, Verizon, and Ralphs. On top of that, they are demanding the ability to make low-wage workers pay even more for their health care. They've refused to even engage around protective equipment, exposure notifications and other safety protocols even after getting massive fines from OSHA."
She said the union took part in contact talks over the weekend and will be back at the bargaining table Tuesday.
Saldaña said workers would man picket lines through 7 p.m. Friday unless a settlement is reached. Workers scheduled for shifts at 7 p.m. Friday and beyond would then return to work, she said.
"Healthcare workers at Cedars-Sinai are asking their employer to stop committing unfair labor practices and to bargain in good faith," the union said in a statement last week.
"Employees are also concerned about receiving basic protections to ensure patient and worker safety. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center was recently issued a hospital safety grade of `D' by the independent consumer healthcare watchdog, the Leapfrog group. The `D' rating is a downgrade from Cedars' previous safety rating of `C,' which was issued in Spring 2021."
Specifically, the union statement cited "below average" grades in infection control; a range of surgical problems; safety issues such as bed sores and blood clots; and practices to prevent errors.
"Earlier this month, Cedars-Sinai employees held a picket in protest of the hospital's threat to workers and patients after Cal/OSHA issued the hospital seven citations for violating OSHA regulations designed to protect workplace safety," the union statement said. "Four of the citations were classified as serious health and safety violations related to COVID-19 prevention."
The union also contends the hospital has not bargained in good faith.
"We are very frustrated that despite us risking our lives to deliver word-class healthcare for our patients, management at Cedars-Sinai has not bargained in good faith and continues to commit unfair labor practices. Management doesn't seem to take patient or worker safety seriously," Luz Oglesby, a clinical partner at the hospital, said in a statement issued by the union.
"In our latest round of bargaining, Cedars-Sinai rejected our proposals on PPE stockpiles, COVID exposure notifications, keeping pregnant and immunocompromised workers away from COVID patients and other safety measures. We're asking for basic workplace protections and respect for the lives and health of caregivers and patients."
Priselac wrote that the hospital will remain open and fully operational during the strike.
"While we are disappointed with the current outcome of recent negotiations, we stand ready to continue positive and collaborative talks with the union. We understand that a fair agreement can only come through constructive discussions at the bargaining table," he wrote.
"Cedars-Sinai's goals have not changed: The safety and wellbeing of our patients are sacrosanct. We're here and ready to talk. Our patients and our employees deserve nothing less."