By ANN DONAHUE
The drive to unionize medical professionals in the Los Angeles area could advance this week when 250 registered nurses at a Valencia hospital vote on whether to join the California Nurses Association.
If a majority of the nurses at the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital vote yes on Wednesday and Thursday, they will be the third group of L.A. County nurses to join the CNA in 18 months.
The vote comes at a time when medical professionals increasingly are looking to collective bargaining to improve their pay and working conditions, along with they would argue the quality of patient care.
The drive to unionize nurses in Valencia comes on the heels of two recent labor successes: doctors employed by Los Angeles County and home health care workers both voted to unionize earlier this year.
Janice Newbold, a spokeswoman for Henry Mayo, said the hospital has hired a consultant to advise them on how to deal with the union effort, and the administration has held conferences with nurses to inform them of the ramifications of joining the union.
"We would prefer to work directly with the nurses regarding staffing, rather than having to go through a third party," Newbold said.
Fliers have been distributed throughout the hospital calling unionization ineffective, and some members of the administration wear buttons that ask nurses to vote no on the proposal.
But a Henry Mayo nurse who spoke on condition of anonymity said she and other nurses are unhappy with the working conditions. "It's emotionally and physically exhausting," she said. "We work 12- to 13-hour shifts with no lunch break. We barely have time to go to the bathroom for personal breaks."
Newbold denied that the hospital's nurses are overworked, saying that a 12-hour shift is fairly standard in the health-care business. The hospital does have a staffing shortage, but it's a widespread problem in the industry, and it hasn't affected patient care at Henry Mayo, she added.
With 30,000 members, the CNA is the largest labor union representing registered nurses in the state. The union is known for its aggressive negotiating tactics; at the behest of the CNA, 7,500 Kaiser nurses went on strike during the peak of flu season in 1998.
On May 26, after a contentious two months of negotiations that included picketing and the threat of a strike, the California Nurses Association and UCLA Medical Center reached a contract for 2,100 nurses.
"Things are dramatically different than they were five years ago," said Beth Kean, organization director for the CNA. "At that time, the theory was that registered nurses were obsolete. California has the lowest number of RNs per capita and this attitude exacerbated the staff shortage. Now nurses don't have enough time to take care of the patients, which compromises the safety of patient care."
While nurses insist that unionization can only serve to eventually improve patient care, others aren't so sure.
"You can never predict how things are going to turn out when a group unionizes," said Dorel Harms, vice president of professional services for the California Healthcare Association. "A union can affect patient care in a positive way in that workers now have a collective way to try and make sure all of the patients' needs are met. But sometimes the tide turns and we get a strike during flu season
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