Washington Hospital Center nurses may strike again

Ben Fischer, Washington Business Journal, April 11, 2011 Another day-long strike could be in store for Washington Hospital Center. The nurses union at Washington Hospital Center is preparing to walk off the job again for another one-day strike, following a March 4 work stoppage hospital officials say cost them $6 million. In a memo to members posted on its website, National Nurses United says its bargaining team wants to strike again "based on management's continued failure to reach a fair settlement with the union and its brazen implementation of the shift differential take-away." The strike authorization vote will begin April 17 and last through April 20. "As always, we would ask them not to strike," said Janis Orlowski, the hospital's chief medical officer and lead management spokeswoman. "We believe we can work through these issues together, and we have have worked through many of these issues together." If members authorize a strike, it will the fourth time since July 2010 nurses have threatened to walk out, though the first two didn't materialize. Washington Hospital Center, the region's largest private hospital, and its 1,600 nurses have been at odds since early 2010, when a group of staffers were fired for not reporting for work during a historic snowstorm. Since then, the dispute evolved into a full-blown labor crisis, and there's little public evidence of a forthcoming solution. The two sides met only twice since March 4, union spokesman Ken Zinn said. At the core of the dispute is the hospital's plan to cut extra wages earned by night and weekend workers. Zinn said the hospital implemented the wage changes on March 13, and most workers saw a pay cut in their March 31 paycheck. Zinn said Nurses United, a California-based union that took over representing hospital center nurses last year, believes its tactic of multiple, short-term strikes is effective. 24-hour walkouts minimize economic pain to the workers while maximizing visibility and forcing the hospital to hire replacement workers and beef up security. "We believe that the strike successfully raised the issues we wanted to raise, both with management and the community at large, and we'll continue to raise them," Zinn said. The nurses are required to give 10 days' notice prior to a walkout, which would mean the next 24-hour strike would occur no earlier than April 30. In an interview, Orlowski revived a hospital talking point from last fall, raising doubts as to the union's real support among rank-and-file workers. In the March 4 strike, Orlowski claimed that half the hospital's nursing force reported for work. (Though, immediately after the strike, the hospital claimed that about 30 percent reported for work.) "They continue to state they represent the nurses, but they don't," Orlowski said. The local union released precise vote totals in its strike-authorization vote in July, but the new union has not in other membership votes since it took over. Zinn said a large majority of workers supported the strike. “The vast majority of nurses at Washington Hospital Center honored the March 4 picket line and are proud of the stand they have taken to improve patient care at the hospital and stop the erosion of nursing standards there," Zinn said.