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Petaluma nurses form independent labor union

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Nurses at Petaluma Valley Hospital last week voted to break from a national union and form their own grassroots bargaining unit to negotiate a contract with hospital operator St. Joseph Health. The move comes as St. Joseph is enmeshed in its own exit talks with the Petaluma Health Care District to leave the hospital as new operator Paladin Healthcare looks to take over the facility.

In voting that wrapped up Wednesday, Petaluma nurses overwhelmingly cast ballots in favor of leaving California Nurses Association and forming a local union to represent the 130 nurses at the hospital. Jim Goerlich, president of the new Petaluma Staff Nurse Partnership, said the change was in the works for months after the relationship with CNA soured.

“It’s exciting,” he said of forming a new union. “It was pretty exhausting, but pretty exciting.”

He said that CNA, which is affiliated with National Nurses United, did not fight hard enough for contract provisions, including minimum staffing levels, which local nurses said were important. He said the new union provides local control as the nurses prepare to negotiate a new deal with St. Joseph. Petaluma nurses have been without a contract since the middle of 2016.

“We couldn’t trust (CNA) any longer,” Goerlich said. “We felt like they were working with the employer on their own national agenda. They kept giving away parts of our contract we worked hard to get over the years.”

Desi Murray, director of CNA’s division representing employees of Catholic-run hospitals, stressed that CNA was not on the ballot, which asked Petaluma nurses whether they wanted local representation. He said the new union could face challenges in today’s healthcare industry.

“We wish those nurses all the best,” he said. “I don’t believe that a small, independent union without resources can survive in the current aggressive corporate healthcare world. We will be there for them in the future.”

Petaluma Valley Hospital, which is owned by the health care district, has been in the middle of an operator transition since last year when the district and St. Joseph failed to agree on an extension of a 20-year lease agreement. The district searched for a new operator and in February settled on Southern California-based Paladin Healthcare.

But the transition has dragged on for nearly a year, with the main stumbling blocks being a transfer of the hospital’s pricey electronic medical record keeping system, according to the negotiators. Ramona Faith, CEO of the healthcare district, said the district supported the new nurses’ union.

“The Petaluma Health Care District supports the nurses decision to organize a Petaluma Staff Nurse Partnership to represent the nurses at Petaluma Valley Hospital,” she wrote in an email. “It is our hope that the nurses and nursing leadership can move forward in a collaborative manner to address issues that have not been addressed due to the nurses decertification efforts towards CNA which began over a year ago.”

Goerlich said the new union would begin contract talks with St. Joseph around the beginning of the new year, and it also plans to reach out to Paladin.

“Wages are a huge thing,” he said. “Wages have gone nowhere in two years. We need security, stability and we need to bring in nurses who will stay,” adding that nurses at the hospital have experienced a 30 percent turnover rate in the past two years.

Jane Read, vice president of operations for St. Joseph at Petaluma Valley Hospital, said the union election results require certification from the National Labor Relations Board.

“The entire leadership team is proud of how nurses have remained committed to our patients throughout this process,” she said in a statement. “We will continue to respect one another’s views and unite through our shared commitment to provide a healing environment for our patients and their families.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)