Unions hoping to tap into growing discontent over working conditions and pay have launched the first major drive in decades to unionize nurses at L.A.-area hospitals.

In the past two years, 1,200 registered nurses have voted to join unions at three local private-sector facilities: 600 nurses at Good Samaritan Hospital in downtown L.A.; 350 nurses at St. Vincent Medical Center, also near downtown; and 250 at the Henry Mayo Center in Newhall.

In addition, several hundred other hospital workers who perform functions similar to those done by registered nurses have also voted to join unions in recent months. Among them are 575 nurse technicians and other staff at Good Samaritan in March, and a total of 300 workers at St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood and Robert F. Kennedy Hospital in Hawthorne.

While those numbers may be a drop in the bucket when compared to the estimated 35,000 non-unionized nurses in L.A. County, it represents a significant turning point. Before the current drive, only a few hundred nurses at City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte and an estimated 6,000 nurses in Kaiser Permanente hospitals in the county were unionized, with Kaiser nurses on membership rolls for several decades.

"We've made a major push in L.A.," said Beth Kean, organizing director of the California Nurses Association. "The frustration level is very high among nurses in L.A., because patient care conditions are so substandard and extreme cost-cutting is taking place at the bedside."

Hospital officials say the union's concern about patient care is a smokescreen for the real issue: more money.

"It's all about money," said Jim Lott, executive vice president of the Health Care Association of Southern California, which represents local hospitals. "They are not here out of some high-minded moral concern about the quality of care for the patients. They are here because most of the hospitals up north are already unionized and this is now where the money is."

Fighting unionization

Hospital administrators have resisted the union organizing tactics. In February, they successfully stopped a nurse unionization drive at one of the region's largest hospitals, Long Beach Memorial, which employs 1,200 registered nurses. The tally was 10 votes short of the threshold needed to unionize. Since then, the California Nurses Association has filed an appeal of the election with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming its drive was defeated due to interference from the hospital.

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