Nurses at USC hospital join union

Times Staff Writer

Registered nurses at USC University Hospital near downtown Los Angeles said Thursday that they voted to join the growing ranks of workers in California's nurse unions.

The move, expected for months, underscores registered nurses' increasing clout in the state amid rising demand for their skills, labor and industry officials said.

USC University Hospital became the 16th California hospital owned by Tenet Healthcare Corp. whose nurses have unionized in recent years, said David Langness, a spokesman for the company's California division. USC/Norris Cancer Hospital next door and two other facilities are staffed by nonunion nurses, but the company expects them to join the ranks as well.

About a quarter of the state's 300,000 RNs are represented by two unions, the California Nurses Assn. and Service Employees International Union, according to industry estimates. But the proportion is growing.

"The fact is, there is a shortage of nurses," said Langness, adding that hospitals have little leverage to keep unions at bay by hiring nonunion workers.

Nurse salaries have been rising across the board, regardless of whether workers are unionized. Tenet, for example, agreed to annual raises of 7% to 8% in the last three years, even at nonunionized hospitals.

When Nicole Ramos, 27, got her nursing certification from Glendale Community College two years ago, she was courted by several hospitals, she said.

"Everyone pretty much threw lunches for us, we had our pick," said Ramos, who eventually decided on USC University Hospital. On Wednesday, she joined the majority of her 500 colleagues and voted to join the union.

Normally, strong labor markets offer little encouragement for workers to unionize because they can demand better compensation anyway, but the California Nurses Assn. has capitalized on the high demand for nurses to solidify its power, said Erik Macatuno, an organizer for the union. Its ranks have doubled in the last decade, to about 65,000 members.

Last year, the union prevailed in a contentious battle to increase required nurse-to-patient ratios in hospitals, from 1 to 6 in medical and surgical units, for example, to 1 to 5.

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