December 15, 2002
By Daren Briscoe, Times Staff Writer
Nurses and union officials celebrating Friday's decision by nurses at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to join the California Nurses Assn. said Saturday that unionization may help to stem a statewide nursing shortage.
California has one of the worst such shortages in the country, with a ratio of one nurse for every six patients at most hospitals.
Many nurses say that they are overworked and that pension plans and other benefits at the hospitals that employ them are too expensive or are nonexistent.
The union, which already represents a majority of the nurses in Northern California, has been courting nurses at Cedars-Sinai for the last year. Friday's close vote -- 695 in favor and 627 opposed, according to union officials -- means that the two biggest private hospitals in the West are now unionized.
Cedars-Sinai, the largest, employs about 1,500 nurses in non-managerial positions. Long Beach Memorial, where nurses voted to join the union last month, employs about 1,300.
"This will have a very strong ripple effect," said Liz Jacobs, a union spokeswoman. Because Cedars-Sinai is so large and influential, she said, the vote "will have a great impact on the standards of nursing practice in California."
At a celebratory breakfast Saturday at the nearby Jerry's Deli, nurses talked about what they hoped to achieve through unionizing.
"I want to get better pension benefits and medical insurance," said Mariano Mendoza, 59. Under the current pension plan, he said, the hospital will match annual employee contributions only up to $500. Mendoza wasn't sure what a pension plan negotiated by the union would look like, but said, "It will all be in the contract."
Carmelita del Mundo said that lower nurse-patient ratios would improve both working conditions for nurses and the quality of patient care.
"I've worked at Cedars for 25 years, and they've had a long time to do it better," she said. "Now we've got a union, and I hope other hospitals will follow suit."
At Long Beach Memorial, where there have been two nurses strikes since November's unionization, nurses recently won improvements in retirement benefits and a pay increase averaging 21% over three years.
Union officials said that better pay and benefits could help hospitals retain the many nurses who currently leave to work in home health care or outpatient clinics.
"The average age of registered nurses in California is 47," Jacobs said. "To keep nurses in the profession until they turn 65, you've got to have some incentive."
Joao da Silva, 34, has worked at Cedars-Sinai for 2 1/2 years. He said the same medical benefits his family is able to get through his wife's job for $50 would cost him more than $300 under the medical plan now offered at Cedars.
With the vote to unionize, Da Silva said, he expects a better benefits package and more job security.
Asked what he would have done if the vote had failed, Da Silva was blunt. "My contract is up in February, and I'd be out of here," he said.