WASHINGTON -- In recent months, the management at Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System has approached workers with a set of proposals that include layoffs and cuts to pensions and health benefits. In doing so, the administration at the publicly funded Monterey County, Calif., hospital has asked its workers to make concessions typical of this budget-tightening era.
But rather than roll over, the union of nurses, technicians and other hospital workers has rejected management’s proposal, instead launching a counter attack on the executives themselves. The hospital's top officials now face a firestorm in the local media and an audit from the state of California. The layoffs and benefit cuts are, at least for now, on hold.
It's a sharp break from the national labor playbook. From Maine to California, unions have been negotiating just how deep the concessions they'll give to management will be. Even in Wisconsin, public workers immediately accepted drastic cuts to pay, pensions and health care, drawing the line only at the right to collectively bargain. In Washington, D.C., Democrats have similarly capitulated to GOP demands for major cuts in social spending under reasoning succinctly laid out by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio): "We're broke."
The Salinas hospital workers' response, in essence, serves as a rebuttal: No, you're not broke. And we can prove it.
“All these other unions have just been accepting these takeaways and bargaining over the extent of the concessions they’ve already conceded,” said Leighton Woodhouse, a spokesperson for the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), the union representing Salinas employees. “It’s just been a negotiation over the sacrifice of their own members...except here in Salinas.”
According to Woodhouse, the union’s research into executive pay at Salinas uncovered the fact that the hospital’s outgoing CEO, Sam Downing, will receive a nearly $4 million payout, most of it in so-called “supplemental” pensions, in addition to his normal annual pension of $150,000. Woodhouse said the union took its finding to the L.A. Times, which ran an expose on April 28. (The reporter who wrote the story would not confirm that the NUHW had supplied the figures, noting that, like most newspapers, it does not reveal sources.)
In the wake of the news, California's state assembly held a well publicized hearing on the executive pensions and voted to perform an audit of the hospital.
Jim Gattis, a member of the hospital’s board of directors, has defended Downing’s benefits, arguing in a recent editorial that the public hospital had to offer compensation on par with private hospitals in order to hold onto the best talent. “Hospital executives are compensated very well because this is a competitive industry,” Gattis wrote in the Monterey Herald, “and it's important to recruit and retain the best people. We're not only competing with other public district hospitals, but also private companies.”
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Salinas Valley Memorial spokesperson Adrienne Laurent noted the hospital had started paying into Downing’s pensions years ago, before its financial outlook had started to deteriorate, and that Downing had served as CEO for more than 30 years.
According to Laurent, patient volume at Salinas has fallen significantly in recent years while the hospital’s staffing level remains among the highest in the state.
“That was fine when it was working and things were going well financially,” Laurent said. “We’re still trying to get down to a more reasonable size. Healthcare dollars are scarce and you have to operate in a leaner fashion. That's what this is all about.”
But despite any drop in revenue, Woodhouse said the hospital is still profitable, and he believes the argument for layoffs and pension cuts has been severely undercut by the news of Downing’s taxpayer-financed “golden handshake.”
“The hospital is on the defensive, and there’s a huge amount of public scrutiny into what’s going on,” he said. “They simply don’t have the moral standing anymore, if they ever did, to say that they’re trying to secure [the hospital’s] financial future and that this has to be done. Nobody’s buying that.” Management intends to lay off around 100 employees, many of them licensed vocational workers, nursing assistants, and other caregivers, according to Woodhouse.
The Salinas Valley has a long history of labor struggles, with conflict between big agricultural growers and working-class farmers going back decades. John Steinbeck, who wrote extensively about the plight of migrant workers, chose to set several of his stories in the Salinas area, including "Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden." Cesar Chavez led local farmers in a massive strike there during the early 1970s.
Like the farmers of yesteryear, Salinas hospital workers plan on striking rather than making significant concessions. “We will probably [strike] if we're not seeing any progress in terms of calling off these layoffs and settling fair contracts,” Woodhouse said.
The Salinas employees probably wouldn't be the only NUHW workers to stop working this spring should they face threats to their jobs. On Monday, the union announced plans for 2,500 workers to strike at Kaiser Permanente worksites in Southern California for one day this Wednesday.
Among those whose positions would be eliminated is Marilyn Benson, who’s been a licensed vocational nurse at Salinas Valley Memorial for 37 years. Benson said she continues working at age 72 for two reasons: She loves her job and she needs the money. Monterey County, she noted, remains one of the more expensive places to live in the country, and gas and food prices continue to climb.
“We have never, ever been asked for the concessions they’re asking for,” Benson said. “A lot of people at our hospital are just getting by....People are angry, and people are upset. I’m more sad -- sad for the people who really need their jobs.”
As for the negotiations, Laurent said hospital officials continue to meet with union leaders at the bargaining table. As much as they’d like to avoid a strike, they haven’t seen much progress so far.
“We're not seeing good, productive discussions," she said. "And we're disappointed by that."