From Cassie Wilmeth – diet tech/cook at GRMC, chapter president of SEIU Local 199 representing nurses, techs and service workers
Something remarkable just happened on Townline Street in Creston. At a time in America when conflict seems inevitable and cooperation impossible, the administration and employees at Southwestern Community College (SWCC) worked together to craft a union contract that benefits our entire town. Their agreement maintains good jobs at one of Creston’s biggest employers, while ensuring a great education for thousands of students across southwest Iowa.
I work right across Townline Street from SWCC at Greater Regional Medical Center (GRMC), and my co-workers and I are also in negotiations for a new union contract. We’d love to follow SWCC’s lead. Unfortunately, the administration at GRMC has followed a different path so far.
Of course, we can’t blame GRMC management for all the problems we’re facing. The real troubles began last year when Iowa’s legislature passed a law designed to destroy public employee unions.
The law makes it much harder for public employees to settle fair contracts. In the past, public institutions like GRMC and SWCC negotiated agreements that covered a wide range of subjects, from wages to benefits to safety standards. But the new law says employers are only required to negotiate over one thing – base wages.
Incredibly, the law makes it illegal to even discuss critical issues like health insurance, outsourcing and staff evaluations. There are still some important subjects the two sides can negotiate, such as health and safety practices, but those are now “permissive subjects.” In other words, union workers can ask to negotiate over “permissives,” but management can refuse and we have no legal recourse.
The new law effectively invites employers to gut the union contracts of their workers. GRMC officials have accepted that invitation. We’ve been in negotiations since January, and the administration has repeatedly said it will not discuss permissives. That leaves us haggling over wages, while critical subjects like health and safety practices, staff training and safe work hours go undiscussed.
Thankfully, SWCC’s leadership has shown even under the new law, there’s a better way. The SWCC administration understands a fair contract isn’t an impediment to progress, it’s the foundation for it. Like GRMC, the college has thrived precisely because its employees have incentives in their contract to keep building their careers at the institution. Understanding that, the SWCC administration agreed to include virtually all possible permissives in their new contract. SWCC’s employees, instead of feeling demoralized by bargaining, have emerged feeling energized and appreciated.
I hope we get to the same place at GRMC, but we have very little time left. Our contract expires July 1 and there’s been very little progress in negotiations.
After we spoke up about management’s hardline stance at the hospital’s board meeting in April, the GRMC administration did pledge in a newsletter to maintain almost all our benefits. But they’ve refused to put any part of that pledge in our contract. And even as they promised to maintain most benefits, they said they would unilaterally eliminate longevity pay. That would be a serious blow to our hospital. In all too many hospitals today, turnover has reached epidemic levels. By contrast, we believe longevity pay has helped GRMC maintain an experienced and dedicated staff. That experience is what allows us to provide big-city care in a small-town setting. Without longevity pay, we’d lose experienced staff, and it’d be much harder to maintain the same continuity of care.
Ultimately, settling a fair contract at GRMC is about much more than the well-being of me and my co-workers. It’s about ensuring the health and well-being of every resident in southwest Iowa who relies on us for care.