New contract a win-win for the Valley

Recently a friend of mine remarked that, today, contract negotiations between unions and employers are less a matter of winning and losing than surviving. He could not have been more on target.
Over the last three decades workers in virtually every major industry have seen hard-won wage and benefit gains put on the chopping block by employers demanding reduced labor costs. Too often the outcome has been bitter standoffs and contracts that look less like collective bargaining agreements than they do terms of surrender. The just concluded contract talks at Forum Health Care were different. And that is what makes them so important.
No one has to tell people in the Mahoning Valley why they had a stake in the negotiations between Forum and the employees' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). As the union of workers at Trumbull Memorial Hospital and Health Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital, the relationship between AFSCME and Forum has a direct impact on the availability of quality health care for every family in Youngstown, Warren and surrounding communities.
AFSCME members at TMH and Hillside were acutely aware that the choices they made at the bargaining table would decide the quality of care their patients received. That is why when Forum Health Care revealed the depth of its financial crisis our union did not do what some might have expected.
Instead of issuing threats and dishing out fiery rhetoric, our union instead turned to AFSCME's fiscal analysts to carefully review Forum's finances. Once it was clear that Forum's cash crunch was as severe as it claimed, union members understood that cost cuts were inevitable. However, they also knew that what was not inevitable was that the cuts would protect both their jobs and the quality of patient care. To achieve that the union adopted an innovative, new approach.
Painful compromises
Rather than approaching the issue as a traditional labor-management dispute, AFSCME offered a series of proposals which would reduce costs for Forum without threatening the jobs of its workers or the quality of the care they provide. The compromises made by the union were painful: A hoped for wage increase was put on hold, workers will start paying a co-pay for their health insurance, and pension benefits will be frozen (workers will instead be offered 401k accounts with Forum providing matching funds).
However, while union members clearly suffered some losses in its negotiations, they made important gains that benefit both themselves and the community. The two most important achievements were agreements by Forum to increase the number of direct care givers in its nursing units. No less important, AFSCME members will now be a full partner in setting nursing care priorities.
Another crucial breakthrough was a new guarantee that, if Forum is ever sold, employees will not lose their jobs or their right to AFSCME representation.
Together, these developments are not only good news for employees, they also assure improved continuity of care for patients -- a fundamental component of quality medical services.
No doubt there will be some who will criticize AFSCME members for not being & quot;militant & quot; enough, but the employees at Forum demonstrated that what makes a union strong isn't whether it pounds the table; it's whether it's pragmatic and creative in crafting solutions. The members of AFSCME at TMH and Hillside were both, and the community is better off for it.
Patricia Moss is president of Ohio Council 8 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO. AFSCME Locals 606, 421, and 606 represent a combined total of over 1,200 employees at Trumbull Memorial Hospital and Hillside Hospital. Included are nurses, service, maintenance and auxiliary clerical employees at Trumbull Memorial and all non-supervisory employees at Hillside.

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