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Labor Crisis Eases as Physicians End Strike at Hospital

Times City-County Bureau Chief

Resident and intern physicians withdrew their picket lines from Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center on Tuesday, easing the labor crisis that has gripped the county’s big public health system.

In a dramatic and unexpected climax to a Board of Supervisors meeting on labor troubles, Jill Mines, a member of the executive board of the Joint Council of Interns and Residents, said the doctors would resume negotiations with county officials today.

The doctors, she told the board, “are ending their strike now.”

The strikers, whose walkout had only a minimal impact on operations at the giant hospital, were medical school graduates completing their training by working under the supervision of senior physicians.

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Return to Normal

With a separate nurses’ strike canceled by a court order, Tuesday’s announcement by the doctors meant that a return to normal operations at County-USC Medical Center and other facilities would be speeded up.

Health department spokeswoman Toby Staheli said that the patient census at the six hospitals was steadily “creeping up.” About 2,135 bedridden patients were reported to be under treatment Tuesday morning, still down considerably from a full load of about 3,000.

The physicians, who put up picket lines at 1,400-bed County-USC but returned to the hospital to tend patients when their beepers sounded, have objected to county plans to convert part of the center to a private hospital. Under study, as part of the arrangement, is a plan to take the physicians off the county payroll. Doctors fear that would wipe out their labor bargaining unit and hurt patient care.

Subject for Talks

Mines said the doctors decided to bargain after they were assured there would be negotiations on the issue of contracting with private industry for county health care. Another official of the interns and residents’ council said the group is determined to prevent similar contracting plans at two other large county hospitals, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

The nurses, represented by Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union, AFL-CIO, are locked in a dispute with the county that mainly involves pay.

The nurses want a 19.5% pay increase over two years, plus improved working conditions for the 4,000-member nursing corps, which both sides agree is understaffed. The county has offered a 14.5% pay raise over two years or 20% for three years. Negotiations were suspended Monday and no new meetings have been scheduled.

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Meanwhile, an annual compensation survey of key health care workers recently released by the Hospital Council of Southern California shows that general staff nurses in private hospitals in Los Angeles County, who earn about $2,496 monthly, make about 5% more than their counterparts at the county’s six public hospitals, who are paid an average of $2,387 per month. Acute care nurses in private hospitals in the county, who are paid $2,718 monthly, earn about 7% more than nurses in similar jobs at county hospitals, who earn $2,543.

In an interview, a council spokesman David Langness said that nurses union officials are wrong in claiming there is a 22% gap in pay between the county’s staff nurses and their private sector counterparts.

Numbers Disputed

Spokeswoman Deanne La Rue said union officials “used an old report and misread the numbers.”

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But Deborah Davenport, chairman of the nurses bargaining unit for Local 660, said the union’s figures are based on salaries paid staff nurses at selected private hospitals that she said provide services comparable to those offered by county facilities.

The union, she said, was comparing salary scales rather than using the average salaries actually paid to nurses, as was done in the Hospital Council survey.

Although their issues are separate, nurses and physicians joined Tuesday in a show of unity at the board meeting. With many of them dressed in white or green hospital garb, they half filled the supervisorial chambers. Warned by board Chairman Deane Dana not to cheer, they raised their right hands, fist clenched, after each of their speakers’ spoke of what they considered inadequate care at the public hospitals and clinics serving the county’s poor.

Support From Hahn

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Their sole supporter on the board was liberal Kenneth Hahn, who represents some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods. He proposed that the nurses be given what they wanted immediately.

His speech was slurred, the result of a January, 1987, stroke, but his message came through clearly. “I believe in the nurses,” he said. “I want to settle the strike here and now in five minutes.”

But even the other liberal on the conservative-dominated five-member board, Ed Edelman, whose district includes County-USC Medical Center, would not go along with Hahn.

Clearly favoring a settlement of the dispute in negotiating sessions rather than in a public meeting, Edelman said, “There is a process in place.” Referring to Hahn’s proposal, he said “I don’t think this is the best way to settle a labor dispute, Kenny. In fairness, you have a complicated situation.”

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Complicating the talks with nurses is the stand of other county unions, which have signed contracts that, in important respects, fall short of what the nurses are asking.

Those unions, whose memberships range from lifeguards and sheriffs deputies to operating engineers and maintenance workers, have long considered Local 660 too radical and some of their officials have expressed unhappiness at what the nurses are seeking.

Times staff writers John Hurst and Claire Spiegel contributed to this story.


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