Jonetta Rose Barras: D.C. Council members play the role of union organizers

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Union leaders in the District don't have to worry about whether they have sufficient muscle to secure favorable labor agreements. It appears some D.C. Council members are prepared to help provide the margin of victory.

Consider, for example, that council Chairman Phil Mendelson and eight other legislators introduced earlier this week the "Patient Protection Act of 2013." The bill would require mandatory minimum staffing ratios of registered nurses at all psychiatric and acute care general hospitals; ban mandatory overtime; and require 12 consecutive hours off for any nurse who works 12 consecutive hours.

Ka-ching. That's the sound of rising health care costs as hospitals attempt to cover the expense of such a law.

"Mandated ratios and quotas fly in the face of modern medicine, which is a team effort," Robert Malson, head of the D.C. Hospital Association, told me. He said hospitals are ready to "go to the mat" but would rather "figure out a compromise."

The bill is a carryover from a 2011 dispute between nurses and MedStar, owners of the Washington Hospital Center. In that fight, labor leaders argued patient care was jeopardized by insufficient staffing levels and excessive workloads. Many nurses involved in that scrimmage were members of the D.C. Nurses Association, an affiliate of the National Nurses United. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, appeared at one of the nurses' rallies; NNU is a member of the AFL-CIO.

It's all union, all the time.

Mendelson initially presented his legislation Monday during a press conference organized by the nurses unions. When asked if he was repaying unions for their support of his past campaigns, he said no.

"This is a good idea whose time has come. In the end, this is about the best interest of patients," Mendelson added, before returning to his seat next to Joslyn Williams, head of the Washington Metropolitan Council AFL-CIO.

There is a pro-union bias. Consider, for example, the legislation requires creation of several committees, including a staffing committee. In unionized hospitals, members of those committees must be chosen by "the collective bargaining representative." That recreates the legislative branch as union enforcer.

This is not an anti-union screed. Like everyone, I am concerned about improving the quality of patient care. But Mendelson's bill, which cast the council as union surrogate, is dangerous and isn't the best method for achieving the stated goal.

Councilwoman Mary Cheh called it a "wooden, one-size-fits-all" approach. She asserted it could lead to a reduction in ancillary staff as hospitals try to comply with the law. As an "alternative," she introduced the "Nurse Safe Staffing Act of 2013."

Drafted with the help of American Nurses Association, Cheh's bill also requires a nurse staffing plan, which would be developed by an RN-dominated committee. The legislation requires the creation of overtime policies. It sets up protections for whistleblowers and imposes penalties for hospitals that fail to follow the law.

"[It's] a flexible, more tailored, more precise solution," argued Cheh.

Her bill certainly isn't labor agreement by council proxy.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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