Janitors' union waits for management offer; boost in benefits sought

Two Portland area unions, in negotiations for new labor contracts, may stage walkouts if they can't reach settlements.

Nurses at Providence Milwaukie Hospital, members of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, are planning a one-day walkout for July 11, if they cannot resolve issues that include patient-staff ratios and increased participation in policy decisions.

The other group of union members, local maintenance workers who clean office buildings, hopes to have a new contract by July 12 but says a walkout is possible. Negotiations between the Service Employees International Union Local 49 and representatives of janitorial firms began Thursday.

The Providence Milwaukie nurses began negotiating with hospital administrators in March 2002. Since mid-June, both sides have met four times with a federal mediator, with another mediating session set for Wednesday.

Sue Pettit, an intensive care nurse and a member of the nurses' bargaining team, said the nurses are frustrated by what they say is the hospital's refusal to budge on key issues. Seventy-nine of the hospital's 120 registered nurses voted to strike, with nine voting against, she said.

'We want to settle a contract, but we're not willing to settle it without having 'nurse power' in the hospital,' said Pettit, who has worked at Providence Milwaukie for six years. 'We're the ones at the bedside, and we want to be heard when we have concerns' about patient care, she said.

Hospital spokeswoman Renee King said a main issue is the nurses' demand for an 'agency shop' arrangement in which nurses who do not belong to the union still must pay fees equivalent to union dues.

The hospital insists on an 'open shop' arrangement, in which nurses would not have to pay fees unless they joined the union.

Neither side has moved on that issue since negotiations began.

Earlier this year, after filing a complaint alleging unfair labor practices, the nurses received a favorable ruling from the National Labor Relations Board. The hospital agreed to address staffing on busy units.

King said that dealing with staffing levels has been the hospital's 'intent and if we haven't done that, they haven't told us about their concerns to meet that level.'

But the nurses say staffing levels have not improved and, on June 27, the union filed another charge of unfair labor practices with the labor board.

The board hasn't ruled on the latest complaint, Pettit said.

'We've been negotiating the issues they brought to the table,' King said, 'and there is nothing about staffing levels.'

If the two sides do not reach an agreement by next Friday, nurses will walk out at 7 a.m. that day and return to work at 7 a.m. July 12. They plan to stage rallies and other activities at the hospital between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. July 11, Pettit said.

King said the hospital will be 'open for business with qualified, licensed nurses' if the walkout happens. Providence Milwaukie needs an average of about 30 nurses during its busiest shifts, she said, so administrators may be able to rely on staff nurses who choose not to walk out.

At an impasse

Meanwhile, Local 49 political director Robyn Steely said the janitors' union wants fully paid health insurance, two sick days a year for workers and a wage increase of 50 cents per hour each year for three years. Union wages for janitors range from $7 to $9.50 per hour.

Steely said the sick days are a big issue.

'Right now, they have no sick days,' Steely said. 'And when wages are that low, if you miss one day, it's difficult to pay rent. So, a lot of janitors have to go to work while they're sick.'

Steely said the management side has not yet made a proposal to the union's 1,800 members.

Bill Sparks, a spokesman for the building owners' negotiating team, declined to discuss the negotiations.

Contact Mary Bellotti at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. and Andy Giegerich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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