Jackson union decries “conspiracy” as it gets ready for bargaining

By John Dorschner

Combative SEIU Local 1991 has launched an aggressive offensive, with newspaper and radio ads warning of a “conspiracy to rip apart Jackson,” as the union starts what its leader describes as “probably the fight of our lives.”

Even so, Local 1991 President Martha Baker acknowledges that county politics and the dire financial condition of Jackson Health System mean the union of nurses and other healthcare professionals will have to grant concessions in the bargaining sessions that have just begun.

But she says if management goes too far, “they will be pushing nurses out the door” to other local hospitals looking for nurses due to a nationwide shortage.

Jackson is seeking the equivalent of a 16 percent reduction in compensation and many other changes, including the elimination of a guaranteed work week. With system losses of $337 million the past two years and loss of $71.7 million so far this year, Chief Executive Carlos Migoya says he needs to reduce labor costs by $145 million. But he’s convinced that even with those reductions, “we’re going to still be competitive,” with decent pay and pensions.

The current contracts with SEIU and the other major Jackson union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, expire Sept. 30. According to statute, the present contract remains in force until new ones are approved. That means unions facing cuts could move slowly at the bargaining table.

An impasse in negotiations could lead to the appointment of an arbitrator and, if no agreement was reached, the matter would head to the County Commission, where a majority vote would pass a deal. Florida law prohibits government unions from striking.

After Mayor Carlos Alvarez was booted out by 88 percent of voters in a recall last March, the commission has been very interested in budget cuts and Baker says she knows labor trims are bound to be approved.

“But if we give concessions, there has to be accountability” on how savings are used, she said. “Our No. 1 goal is to save Jackson as a public entity.”

That’s been the theme of recent ads in The Miami Herald and other local newspapers, as well as commercials on Spanish- and English-language radio.

“Who is behind this conspiracy to rip apart Jackson?” asked one recent newspaper ad. “What do politicians and Jackson’s rival hospitals have to gain? Could it be the nearly $2 billion in revenue Jackson generates every year? Are patient services getting cut so someone can make a profit?”

The print ads, which indicate they were paid for by Local 1991, blame Commissioner Rebeca Sosa’s “hand-picked task force, which includes Jackson’s private competitors [that] recommended privatizing Jackson without a public vote.” They urge readers to call Sosa’s office to complain.

The 30-second radio spots don’t mention Sosa, but raise the specter of a secret deal to sell Jackson.

One English-language spot talks about a deal “behind closed doors at county hall” to privatize Jackson by giving it “to influential friends.”

A Spanish-language commercial says Jackson has revenue close to $2 billion a year and asks why “administrators have been so slow to implement solutions,” suggesting they have “millions of reasons to sell [the hospital] to a friend.” The radio ads don’t indicate who paid for them.

Baker says she didn’t realize that SEIU was not identified in the radio spots and says it’s no secret her union is paying for them. Baker was on the Sosa-sponsored 20-member task force and was one of two members who did not endorse the final report, released in May , that recommended converting the system into a nonprofit so it would be free of political control.

Baker says the task force moved too quickly, ignoring difficult subjects such as state and county statutes that require the $350 million in local tax money that Jackson receives go only to a “county public hospital.”

Sosa decries the SEIU campaign as a gross exaggeration. She notes Baker herself sparked the grand jury investigation into Jackson by demanding it at a press conference, and its report recommended a panel should study whether Jackson should have a new governance structure. There were no “closed doors” meetings, says Sosa, only public meetings open to everyone. She says the proposal doesn’t recommend selling Jackson to anyone, just changing the way it’s governed.

Baker says opponents call the campaign “self-serving because we’re trying to save our jobs. That’s not true. There are a lot of openings in healthcare. Our people can go anywhere.”

Jackson management’s opening proposal asks for a rollback of the 3 percent cost-of-living increase that union members received in July. It freezes annual pay raises, called step increases, which can run almost 5 percent a year.

Jackson also wants workers to continue contributing 5 percent of their salaries toward their health insurance, a concession given by the union last year to ease the budget crisis, but does not ask for an additional 5 percent, as Mayor Carlos Gimenez is asking from other county employees.

The Jackson proposal also asks employees in the Jackson pension plan to contribute 3 percent of their salary to their pensions, as state employees are doing under a law passed by this year’s Legislature.

For several thousand Jackson nurses, a major change would be reducing their standard work week, which now alternates three-day work weeks totaling 36 hours with four-day weeks totaling 46 hours, in which six hours in the second week are paid at overtime rates, 1 ½ times the regular rate.

Jackson executives maintain that they need to get rid of this “built-in” overtime. Baker maintains that the change will simply mean greater expense for Jackson by requiring the hiring of more nurses.

By eliminating a guaranteed work week, Jackson executives give themselves flexibility of having nurses not come to work when there are reduced numbers of patients — as been happening often in recent months.

“This is huge,” says Baker, noting that virtually all full-time workers, union and union, are guaranteed a 40-hour week under the current contract.

The grand jury report, released a year ago, said Jackson’s labor costs were high and “unacceptable,” noting that successful hospitals generally have labor costs of about 40 percent of total operating expenses while Jackson’s ran about 55 percent. Jackson’s own analysis, using Medicare data, showed Jackson Memorial average nursing salaries were $40.47, the highest in Miami-Dade County.

Baker counters that Jackson’s averages run higher because its nurses stay longer, lured by the pensions, and overall compensation is close to other major local hospitals.

A study by The Herald earlier this year found that starting nursing salaries at Jackson and Baptist Health South Florida were similar. Baptist reported its total benefits, including retirement package, were 33 percent of labor costs, while Jackson’s figure was 28.6 percent. But union critics point out that Baptist can afford to be generous because it had a net income of $272 million last year, while Jackson lost $93 million.

Jackson’s proposed cuts could be even harder on the system’s nonprofessional staff, says Viviene Dixon-Shim, president of AFSCME Local 1353, which represents about 3,500 workers, such as the food staff and janitors. “It really doesn’t look good,’’ she says. “We represent poor people. They took cuts last year, and they can’t afford another cut.”

Jackson union contracts are usually for three years. If the commission breaks an impasse, it will be only for a year. The commission has the ability to make changes retroactive to Oct. 1.

But some parts of the contract can’t be changed retroactively, Migoya said. Pensions can only be adjusted annually. Jackson’s proposed 3 percent employee contribution to pensions is expected to save the system $53 million annually. If pensions aren’t changed, Migoya says, Jackson will have to find other labor cost savings.