If Unionized Hotel Workers Strike

Larry Price
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Wednesday - July 26, 2006
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Have you ever wondered why unions have so much power in our state? One of the reasons is because we have so many unenlightened managers. Simply put, if employees are not disgruntled, they are very difficult to organize.

One of the problems in Hawaii’s workplaces is we have so many absentee owners. The employees never really communicate with the business owners. Most information comes to management by courier. It’s management by modem. It has no compassion, and the chances of employees having any influence on the decision-making process is minimal.

Hawaii may not be ready for it, but it’s a good bet the state’s bustling economy is looking at a couple of potential strikes. The hotel industry is looking down at a very politically charged industry negotiation that has already been extended to August. The hotel workers’contact ran out June 30, and it was quickly agreed to extend it until August. The tourists are coming by the thousands, staying longer and spending more money. It’s only logical for the hotel workers to expect a bigger piece of the pie.

It is very unlikely any outsider has the inside facts to figure out the hotel workers’ bargaining zone, because they have so many different properties to contend with. The hotel workers appear to have management right were they want it. With an important general election on the horizon and the legislation session ramping up in January, the negotiations are sure to invite political opportunists in Honolulu to make deals and promises that would boggle minds of most employees, both union and non-union. The plan would be simple: Get the legislators involved first, drag the governor into the fray and have an ambitious mayor offer his guidance. I would bet a tentative script of the confrontation has already been drafted.

On Kauai, striking nurses at Wilcox Memorial Hospital are a couple of days from intensive care. On June 24, they walked off the job when contract talks broke off over disagreement on a union-proposed patient-to-nurse ratio. Last week, management’s latest offer was rejected. Union officials said the offer not only rejects the call for patient ratios, it also cuts hours and benefits. The hospital also announced that it will be cutting licensed practical nurse positions, and will require nurses returning to work to take competency tests. It’s not a good situation for the people of Kauai or the Hawaii Nurses Association.

The union’s public presentation is that its demands are not over wages and benefits, but rather a lower patient-to-nurse ratio. This does not sit well with management, because all union demands have a price tag. Wages are always a major issue in bargaining. Management is always concerned with wage and benefit issues because its ability to compete depends to some extent on its labor costs. If another hospital on Kauai was able to produce equivalent health care with lower labor costs, it would have higher profits and sustain unexpected business downturns.

The probable truth is Kauai’s Wilcox Hospital doesn’t have any real competition for patients’ business.

Let’s face it, employers fiercely protect the capitalistic, market-driven system so prices for skilled labor and ultimately wages are controlled by the market rather than by collective bargaining or administrative order. In the nurse’s profession, the employers cannot and probably do not want to control the content of the skilled jobs needed to operate a safe hospital. Employers in Hawaii have been historically involved with the educational system to train nurses, so they know the importance of skilled employees.

What the Hawaii Nurses Association needs to do is provide the middle class with facts and figures so their perception of Kauai’s nurses is that their current income as related to their duties is not only unsafe for the patients, but also unfairly distributed. It has not done that; however, it is a good lesson for other unions committed to improve the working conditions and parity for their membership.

If the union can’t do that, then there is no real reason to pay union dues, is there?

I can’t think of anything more dangerous in a hospital than a frustrated, disgruntled nurse.

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