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A District 1199 rally outside the Center for Progress and Justice on July 24
Justin Horwath

Updated: Nurses Rally As Labor Negotiations Continue

July 31 is the deadline for the expiration of a contract that covers Christus St. Vincent nurses.

July 26, 2014, 12:30 am
Members of the union representing Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center caregivers rallied political support at a Thursday night gathering as the possibility of a strike approaches.

Talks between District 1199 of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care employees and Christus management continued Thursday with no formal agreement over a new contract for nurses. The union issued a ten-day notice of a strike Monday, and the two sides are scheduled to meet Friday and Saturday in a last-ditch attempt to reach a deal before the July 31 expiration of the current contract. 

Labor leaders from other unions spoke to a packed house at the Center for Progress and Justice in a two-hour gathering Thursday night, saying they'd pledge their organizations' support if a strike commences. 
Carter Bundy pledges AFSCME support 
Justin Horwath

"This is a union town," said Jon Hendry, president of the New Mexico Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, "and St. Vincent's is going to find out."

Added AFSCME Council 18 political director Carter Bundy: "Maybe they should just pack up and go back to Houston."

Christus, which is based in Texas, partnered with a local Foundation, CVS Support, to run the local hospital in 2008, and this is the second round of tense labor negotiations to make it to the public eye since then.

Mayor Javier Gonzales appeared just as the rally moved from speech-making to Cerillos Road for sign-waving, telling SFR he wants to "do everything I can to keep both sides talking to one another." He says he hasn't talked with hospital management. 

Javier Gonzales, left, with advisor Morty Simon and District 1999 leaders. Pictured far right, District 1199 president Fonda Osborn
Justin Horwath
The contention between Christus management and the union is mostly about staffing levels, with 1199 fighting for units in the hospital to be more robustly staffed. Hospital documents indicate management has dropped staffing in certain units from the 50th percentile to the 40th percentile, meaning that currently, 60 percent of similarly sized peer institutions have more nurses and caregivers treating patients than St. Vincent.

"What I know is what I heard tonight," Gonzales said in response to a question about whether he thinks staffing levels at the hospital are sufficient. "I believe what the nurses are saying."

A representative for U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-Santa Fe, read a letter to the audience that touted the congressman's sponsorship of the Registered Nurse Safe Staffing Act, "which requires hospitals that participate in Medicare to implement a hospital-wide staffing plan for nursing services and requires that an appropriate number of nurses provide care in each unit and on each shift."
District 1199 moves rally to Cerrillos Road
Justin Horwath

Christus has said that patient outcomes at the hospital have improved over the years with the current staffing levels and that it's stood by its last contract offer to the union, issued last week. "We are disappointed that the Union has chosen to reject a contract that provided security and stability to our employees," reads a hospital statement issued early in the week.

Negotiations continue Friday, with the help of a federal mediator. "We are looking forward to resuming negotiations today and working together to reach an agreement," writes spokesman Arturo Delgado.

Hospital nurses, patients and other stakeholders attended the rally, too.

One registered nurse who works at Christus St. Vincent tells SFR "people are running around and doing the very basics" during her shifts because of low staffing levels that make quality care "impossible under these conditions."

She declined to give her name because of previous contract language proposed by hospital management that would have prevented employees from speaking out about the hospital's staffing levels.
The union is asking the hospital for higher staffing levels
Justin Horwath

Alex White, a Santa Fe Community College nursing student, says that while he'd like to stay in Santa Fe to work as a nurse after graduation, the current staffing debate "makes me think about exploring options outside the community, which isn't my first choice."

Check for updates on the negotiations.

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