- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2000

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney joined Washington Hospital Center nurses on the picket line yesterday as their strike entered its third week with no sign of resolution.

Mr. Sweeney and members of various unions chanted and waved signs to declare their solidarity with the nearly 1,500 striking nurses. But negotiators on both sides said they made little progress and did not know when the strike would end.

"There haven't been any agreements today. We are reviewing proposals that have been exchanged with management," said Gwen Johnson, head of the D.C. Nurses Association union, late in the day.

Representatives of the union and the hospital met with a federal mediator downtown for the first time since last week. A hospital spokeswoman said the two sides did agree on some small safety issues in the morning, but they made no headway on the larger sticking points salary increases and mandatory overtime.

Mr. Sweeney assured the nurses that the AFL-CIO, a federation of the nation's major unions, would support them until the end of their strike.

"Your struggle is not just about your own hospital and your own work. This is about nurses all across the country," he said at a noon rally at First and Irving streets NE.

Mr. Sweeney said he was calling on the government to investigate the hospital's use of replacement nurses and the impact on safety and patient care.

Lisa Wyatt, vice president of public affairs for the hospital, said the institution is prepared to retain the nearly 700 replacements even though they are being paid double the normal nurses' wages.

"The expenses that we are incurring right now, these are one-time expenses. We are prepared to pay them as long as we need to," she said.

Ms. Wyatt said putting up with that expense is preferable "versus agreeing to a contract that is not economically viable."

Hospital and union negotiators say they are coming closer together in terms of proposals, but each side says the other is unwilling to make final concessions.

Both sides are calling for a 16 percent pay increase to be phased in over three years. The nurses, however, want a larger percentage the first year than hospital officials will allow.

And both sides have submitted mandatory-overtime proposals that are under consideration.

Nurses say the goal of their fight is to raise the quality of patient care. Ms. Wyatt says the hospital must forge an economically workable plan.

"We are making extremely fair and generous proposals," she said. The 16 percent wage increase "is more than any other hospital has offered its nursing staff across the country," she added.

Joanie Menser, a Washington Hospital Center nurse for 20 years, walked the picket line adorned with buttons and hand-lettered signs, insisting it wasn't just about the money.

Before the last contract expired three years ago, the hospital had more flexible work schedules, including a weekend flextime plan, that attracted more and better nurses, Ms. Menser said.

"Within months [of instituting the weekend policy], we had a waiting list, where other hospitals were begging for nurses," she said.

But that has changed, and she claimed the caliber of managing nurses has gone down. She also complained that nurse-to-patient ratios have decreased.

Nurses Sonia Hall and Margie Verkamp were also concerned about their hospital attracting good nurses.

Ms. Hall said she had started working part time at other hospitals that had more flexible policies. She was afraid that her colleagues would leave Washington Hospital Center once they got a taste of other institutions.

"They've found out the grass is greener," said Sharon Clark, a member of the nurses association bargaining team.

"Every minute of every day they are losing a nurse," she said.

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