Key contract agreements reached between the California Nurses Association and Catholic Healthcare West at five Southern California hospitals could end up forcing other hospitals to give costly concessions to unions as nursing professionals gain ground.

The pacts with the state's largest not-for-profit hospital chain, which nurses will wrap up voting on this week, came in the space of just a few days, and only six months after the registered nurses union organized the hospitals. That's almost half the time it normally takes to bargain a first contract.

The pacts included key labor gains, such as the right to submit staffing disputes to binding arbitration, a ban on mandatory overtime, and the counting of overseas experience in calculating pay, a breakthrough for the system's many Filipina nurses.

Southern California historically has been a region where nurses have organized in low numbers, compared with the northern half of the state, but if the CNA's success is any indicator, that may not be for long. "Whether they are unionized or not, they are going to be pressured to develop similar packages for nurses," said Jim Lott, executive vice president of the Hospital Association of Southern California, the industry's regional trade group. "We are faced with a critical nursing shortage and all hospitals want to provide a good working environment for our nurses."

Shortage behind gains

That shortage has given unions an upper hand.

The Service Employees International Union, which in the past focused on organizing lesser-skilled hospital workers, scored a big win at another CHW hospital last month when 600 registered nurses at Northridge Hospital Medical Center voted to join that union.

That comes on top of organizing wins at two CHW facilities in Ventura County earlier this year for the SEIU, which like the CNA, reached overarching "organizing" agreements with the San Francisco-based Catholic system earlier this year.

(Those agreements give union organizers greater access to workers in exchange for such concessions as pledges to not attack the chain publicly. The SEIU in particular had waged a withering campaign against the not-for-profit system, questioning its commitment to Catholic values.)

The CNA, meanwhile, is readying for another union election this Tuesday and Wednesday at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, a Memorial Health Services facility, where it barely lost an organizing vote last year. It's also looking for other Southern California and L.A. county hospitals to organize.

"I don't have any doubt that before long the majority of nurses in Southern California will be represented by the CNA," boasts David Johnson, the union's Southern California director. "This is a rapidly unionizing work force."

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