Tri-Cities Community Health workers ready to go on strike

Workers at Tri-Cities Community Health in Pasco are poised to strike after a year and a half of fruitless negotiations to replace a contract that expired in March 2010.

Members of Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 8, which represents more than 100 employees of the clinic formerly known as Community Health Center La Clinica, voted unanimously Monday to reject a proposal from the clinic's management.

And all but one of the union members who attended the Monday meeting voted to prepare for a strike, said Cynthia Schu, OPEIU Local 8's organizing director.

Schu said union rules require 70 percent of members to vote for strike preparation and to seek approval for the strike from the international union as a whole before going on strike.

"The next step would be for the strike itself," Schu told the Herald. "Right now, it looks like that's a reality."

Clinic officials said they have been put in an all but impossible situation because of cuts in the state's 2011-13 budget that amount to a $1.6 million bite out of the clinic's $14 million annual operating budget.

Board President Linda Gustafson said her fear is that the health center will have to cut services to patients if the clinic and the union can't reach an agreement.

"The goal for the board and the clinic is to negotiate a fair contract for the clinic, its employees and its patients," Gustafson told the Herald. "The patients have to be part of the mix. ... We've maintained all along this has to be a joint effort with the clinic and the union going forward."

Joel Hughes, a Spokane consultant serving as the health center's interim chief financial officer, said proposals on the table to make up the $1.6 million lost from the clinic's budget include laying off the equivalent of 15 full-time employees to save $500,000; to increase the amount that employees pay for insurance from 13 percent to 20 percent of premiums for a $370,000 savings; and a 3 percent across-the-board salary cut for everyone except medical providers and dentists to save about $300,000.

He said the clinic also is working on ideas to work more efficiently and increase the volume of patients seen in an attempt to bring in more money.

Schu said the union has offered to freeze workers' pay for a year, take eight furlough days without pay, have employees pay 15 percent of health insurance premiums and agree to some proposed layoffs and hour reductions.

But union members think the clinic has gone too far in proposing a wage freeze with no end date, the 3 percent pay cut and the 20 percent share of health premiums.

"They feel so strongly they've taken steps to authorize strike preparation," Schu said.