University of Washington Medical Center

By Steve Leigh

SEATTLE--Two hundred members of the Washington State Nurses Association picketed the University of Washington (UW) Medical Center in their contract dispute with the UW administration. They were supported by the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and concerned patients and members of the public. SEIU and WFSE are also negotiating with the UW.

The key issues for the nurses are pay, staffing levels, rest time and paid leave. Nurses currently make 8 percent less than nurses at other major hospitals in the Seattle area. UW is only offering a 2 percent raise a year over two years. This would leave wages behind inflation (currently running at 6 percent per year) and even further behind area hospitals.

The UW administration is also demanding less rest time between shifts and less time off for nurses to care for family members. The nurses are concerned that this would hurt patient care, as well as their own health and safety. They are negotiating to keep the current level of leave and benefits.

Nurses blame the CEO of UW Medical Center, Stephen Zieniewicz, for the bad contract proposals. "The attitude really shifted when he came in," as one nurse put it. "The new philosophy is the bottom line, not patient care. He's willing to spend lots of money on temporary nurses, but not pay the permanent nurses a decent wage. The UWMC spent nearly $1 million in 2007 for temporary nursing staff. They get more per hour than the permanent nurses, and they aren't forced to be on call. It makes no sense."

Of course, UW has plenty of money. It just raised $2.7 billion in a fund drive, and UW President Mark Emmert is one of the highest-paid state university presidents in the country--more than $600,000 per year, plus perks.

The nurses welcomed the support of other unions and the public. Many drivers honked in support. The nurses talked about having more joint actions with the other unions. Winning a better contract will be a tough fight, but the nurses are committed. "For our patients, we will fight!" they chanted while picketing.