WILKES-BARRE — The union representing nurses at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital is anticipating a long battle to get a new contract based on the bargaining record of the hospital’s owner, for-profit Community Health Systems (CHS).
Jerry Silberman, senior staff representative with the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) said CHS would prefer to not have unions in any of its facilities.
“They litigate endlessly,” he said.
PASNAP has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging several unfair labor practices. A hearing before the NLRB is scheduled for Feb. 2 in Philadelphia.
Jim McGuire, spokesman for Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, said the company continues to negotiate in good faith with PASNAP and remains committed to the collective bargaining process.
The union’s complaint cites instances of mandated overtime and the failure of CHS to offer information related to staffing needs. The complaint also cites CHS’s refusal to provide details of its benefits plan. The complaint states that CHS has failed to bargain in good faith, constituting an unfair labor practice.
There are about 480 unionized nurses at the River Street hospital, making $26 to $31 an hour, according to the union.
In a recent release, PASNAP Executive Director Bill Cruice charged CHS with “committing unfair labor practices and refusing to find common ground.”
Silberman said CHS has battled nurses’ unions at other facilities it owns.
He cited two cases with the California Nurses Association. At Barstow Community Hospital, Silberman said an injunction was issued directing the company to bargain in good faith after it was found to have been engaged in illegal conditional bargaining.
At Fallbrook Hospital, Silberman said the same events occurred, and similar cases are pending decisions of the federal courts in West Virginia and Ohio.
Union: Details missing
In Wilkes-Barre, Silberman said CHS has refused to provide information necessary for the union to bargain effectively.
“We need to know what we’re talking about; like what is in the proposals so we can measure the impact on our members,” Silberman said. “For instance, we’ve asked how much health benefits will cost our members, and CHS won’t tell us. How can we say yes or no to their proposal if we don’t know what it is?”
Silberman said the law requires employers to provide information to allow unions to decide what to recommend to its members.
Silberman said the nurses at Wilkes-Barre General have been working under the terms of the contract that expired in March. He said when the previous contract expired in 2010, the nurses had worked without a contract for almost two years.
“They refused to give us information then as well,” Silberman said. “This practice can drag out the bargaining process for months or years. It’s all aimed at discouraging the union members.”
The nurses have done informational picketing and earlier this month staged a one-day strike, which CHS countered with a two-day lockout.
Replacements were brought in from out of the area and CHS said it had to make a three-day commitment to the temporary nurses.
“The rank and file is just angry,” Silberman said. “We have tremendous solidarity, but they are angry because of poor working conditions every day and because CHS is spending huge amounts of money on everything but them.”
PASNAP claims that the replacement nurses were paid $80 per hour and were provided reimbursement for travel, food and lodging.
Headquartered in Tennessee CHS’s affiliates own, operate or lease more than 135 hospitals in 29 states, with an aggregate of 20,000 licensed beds, according to the company’s website.