Labor Pains

In recent weeks Miami's financially floundering Jackson Memorial Hospital has become the principal battle zone in a union war for the hearts and minds of Dade County's 14,000 nurses. Since 1975 a local chapter of the Florida Nurses Association (FNA) - one of only ten unions in Dade - has represented Jackson nurses in their contract negotiations with hospital administrators. Now an out-of-town labor group affiliated with the AFL-CIO has shipped as many as ten professional union organizers to Miami to win over the FNA's membership.

The Miami raid represents a larger strategy by the million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to establish itself in Florida and throughout the South. The effort follows a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this spring that opened the health-care industry to greater access by labor unions.

Representatives of the Service Employees International say they've held preliminary talks with nurses at other regional medical centers as well, including South Miami Hospital, Baptist Hospital, and Hollywood Memorial Hospital in Broward. According to senior organizer Nancy Lenk, alarmed administrators at Mercy Hospital in Miami have ordered nurses to stop wearing name tags so that union officials cannot identify them for recruitment. (Mercy officials say that hospital policy requires all employees to wear name tags.) "I think the hospital industry in South Florida is worried," says Lenk.

So is John Barbour, a local FNA staff director. "I wouldn't use the term scared," he says, "but we are very concerned about their activities. We feel that if they were really interested in the employees, they would be out organizing the unorganized."

Barbour is specifically worried about the fact that more than 1000 of the 1800 nurses at Jackson have signed a petition calling for elections to oust the old union and replace it with the larger, more aggressive one. (Jackson Memorial is the biggest organized-labor medical center in the South.) Barbour claims that some of the signatures on the petition were forged by SEIU officials. He also has filed a petition with the state Public Employees Relations Commission, suggesting that pro-SEIU nurses at Jackson harassed and intimidated their colleagues during the recent sign-up campaign. At a hearing set for this Tuesday, July 30, the state commission will consider Barbour's claims. Depending upon the outcome, an election may be held sometime in October.

In general FNA officials say they've done a good job of looking out for the interests of Jackson nurses during the past sixteen years. The minimum starting salary on the day shift has jumped from $10,000 to $28,000, with various improvements in staffing, benefits, and training. As for SEIU, Barbour says that only about six percent of the union's members are nurses; therefore their interests would wind up taking a back seat to those of technical and service workers. Barbour also claims that in the past the SEIU has relied too heavily on labor strikes to gain contract concessions - an approach that won't work in Florida because of the state's prohibition against public employees going on strike. He accuses a small group of malcontents of fomenting revolution.

Sofie Sauri dismisses these claims as preposterous scare tactics. Head nurse in Jackson's recovery room and a former vice president of the Florida Nurses Association, Sauri says discontent with the FNA is widespread at Jackson. The Orlando-based union has been all but invisible in Miami, she asserts, and its attempts at collective bargaining are far too passive. "We've complained over and over again about problems that exist with promotions, staffing, schedules, even parking - subtle, insidious, day-to-day issues that effect how we do our jobs," Sauri says. "They were content to collect our dues, but when it came time to do something about our concerns, they didn't. They're a company union. They have a sweetheart deal with management. We started looking around for other representation."

Sauri and other nurses are angry with the FNA for rolling over last year's contract at Jackson without extracting any pay raise for nurses. The nurses did vote on the issue, but no independent check of the ballots was possible - union officials somehow managed to lose them, Sauri claims. Pro-SEIU nurses are also critical of the way the old union handled an incident last year in which nurses in two isolation wards were exposed to a resistant strain of tuberculosis. A program that once allowed nurses to appeal to a hospital committee if they felt they weren't being promoted quickly enough has been dormant for four years. And a system that was supposed to resolve complaints about staffing has broken down, leaving some nurses overburdened with too many seriously ill patients.

"This is war," says Sauri. "And we are going to win."

"In the end, we will prevail," says Barbour. "But it's going to be a long, hot summer.


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