Officials at Tri-Cities Community Health and the union representing the clinic's workers seemed no closer to hammering out a new contract Thursday than they were a year ago when the original expired.
While members of Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 8 picketed the health center's Pasco and Kennewick offices, clinic board President Linda Gustafson said that the nonprofit clinic is struggling to avoid cutting patient services as it faces losses in state and federal funding.
"From our position, our goal is to negotiate a fair and equitable contract for our employees, our health center and our patients," Gustafson said. "We include patients in it, because with the state and federal cuts we know we will receive, if a contract increases our expenses for salaries and benefits, with reduced revenues the only place we can look at is services we provide and expenses we can cut."
Gustafson said the state budget proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire would slash about $2.6 million from the clinic's budget.
The clinic, formerly known as Community Health Center La Clinica, has a yearly operating budget of just more than $14 million, she said.
Add to that a proposal by Republicans in Congress to cut $1.3 billion from the nationwide network of community health centers, and Gustafson said the money isn't there to continue under the current contract provisions.
The contract technically expired on March 31, 2010, but the clinic continues to operate under that agreement until a new contract can be negotiated -- a process that started in the fall of 2009.
Along the way, the union filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board. The union claimed the clinic's management had violated federal labor laws by threatening employees with firings or layoffs if they didn't agree to reduce or eliminate benefits or get rid of the union, had failed to negotiate new personnel policies with the union, and didn't provide the union with information relevant to negotiating and enforcing the contract.
The clinic ultimately settled with the NLRB and agreed to post a notice for workers listing things the clinic agreed it would and would not do. That included that it would not threaten employees with job loss or refuse to bargain with the union, and would rescind employee policies the union argued should have been the subject of collective bargaining.
Gustafson said that the clinic now is asking union workers to accept a wage freeze and to increase the percentage they pay for health insurance premiums from 13 percent to 20 percent.
"We have not been able to schedule times union negotiators could meet with us," she said. "We have made ourselves available and continue to make ourselves available."
But union members said they have offered to talk about wage and benefit freezes and that it's the clinic management that refuses to come to the table.
"We have made it clear that we are willing to talk about concessions," said Cindy Schu, organizing director for OPEIU Local 8. "We can't get them to be partners with us."
Union members also claim clinic management's true goal is to take away the union's power to represent its members by demanding 59 "takeaways" -- or changes to the existing agreement that union members say would remove their bargaining rights.
A list union officials passed out at the picket Thursday listed concessions such as:
w Striking from the agreement requirements for employees to become union members and to pay union dues;
w Removing the ability to pay union dues through payroll deductions;
w Restricting what can be posted on the union's bulletin board to exclude anything derogatory or controversial about the clinic;
w Preventing union representatives or shop stewards from interfering in an investigation meeting that could result in the employee being disciplined;
w Waiving the union's right to bargain over work issues that arise during the life of the new contract.
Economic concessions on the list circulated by the union include reductions in overtime, holiday and sick pay, and pension contributions.
Union members also said the clinic won't disclose financial details to demonstrate why concessions are necessary from workers to keep the clinic running.
Josie Lopez is a former clinic employee who said she was laid off in downsizing in 2009 and now works for OPEIU.
"Now they're talking about downsizing more, but at the same time they hired this high-priced attorney (to negotiate)," Lopez said. "They keep using the excuse of the economic times, but that's bogus."
Gustafson said the board hired an outside attorney because no one in-house had the necessary experience.
"We have to have people on our team sitting at the negotiation table with union negotiation expertise," she said.
Gustafson said employee wages and benefits make up about 70 percent of the clinic's expenses, and if it can't reduce those expenses as revenues decline, patients will suffer.
"In addition to being 70 percent of our expenses, we look at our employees as our biggest asset," she said. "There are some difficult decisions that we have made and that we will have to make. ... Of course we'd like to do everything we can for salary and benefit packages for employees, but realistically we do not want to have to cut any of our patient services."
w Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org