Reprinted with permission from USW@Work.

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov.

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov – Emergency Medical Technician Lynn Lee in the emergency room.

When a badly injured trauma or heart attack victim is wheeled into the emergency room at Kaiser Permanente's hospital in Fontana, Ca, Steelworker Lynn Lee quickly flies into action.

Lee cuts off the patient's clothing and attaches monitors to measure heart rhythm and other vital bodily functions as part of a team of medical professionals who move around the bedside with choreographed precision.

"Everybody is working. Everybody knows their part," she said during a break from the fast pace of the ER, where life and death struggles occur daily.

"We try to make sure the patient is stable. We're thrilled whenever we can move them to the operating room or on to the hospital floor."

An emergency medical technician by training, Lee is also a proud member of the United Steelworkers union and its Health Care Workers Council. She is one of 35,000 health care workers represented by the USW at hospitals, nursing homes and other settings around the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov.

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov – Phlebotomist Diane Hinojosa.

"I'm a single mom. I raised four kids and three out of the four went to college on my union wages," said Lee, a former grievance rep who was wearing a blue denim shirt embossed with the Steelworker logo. "If you're gong to work in a hospital, it's so  important to be a union member."

Oldest and Largest

There is a well-developed culture of caring among USW members for both patients and for fellow employees represented by USW Local 7600, the oldest and largest of the council's locals with 4,600 members.

You can see that are among USW members at work in Kaiser facilities in Fontana and Riverside, and in the Local 7600 hall where a new five-year local agreement was wrapped up in March. The local represents 210 job classifications from housekeeping to laboratory and technical work and patient-care occupations.

A long line of patients, some squeamish, some brave, were waiting for Diane Hinojosa, a phlebotomist, and her colleagues to draw their blood. Hinojosa greeted them with a smile.

"It's very demanding work. It takes a lot of skill," she said as one patient left her work station and another approached. "You have to like it and you have to give a lot to it. Be patient."

Challenging work

USW member Ray Valenzuela and his partner Felix Mariano, for example, clean, disinfect and wax the emergency room floor at Fontana after the often messy patient care work is done. It's a job Valenzuela takes seriously.

"It's a challenge for us. We take care of it as if the patients were our family members," said Valenzuela, who quietly added that his feelings are colored by the murder of his son years back. "I try to help other people when they are in hard times. I know their feelings, the pain."

The local was chartered in 1969, well before the National Labor Relations Board authorized hospitals employees to form unions. The local and its committees are member driven. Members elect their leaders and perform their own representation work.

Compassion on the job

Local 7600 President Roy Wiles said the training of the local's 25 member representatives and rank-and-file members on their rights and obligations is the best investment the local makes.

"Each and every one of them has compassion for the employees. They're the best," Wiles said of the local's reps. "For myself, as their leader, I want them to know everything that I know an to empower them."

Kaiser Permanente has a long history with organized labor and with Steelworkers in particular. The health plan was founded by industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and a physician, Sidney R. Garfield, in 1942 to provide health care for workers and their families at a Kaiser steel mill in Fontana and at Kaiser shipyards on the West Coast.

Kaiser Permanente eventually recruited other labor union members as customers. Today it is the largest non-profit HMO in this country with 134,000 employees and 8.3 million members in nine states and Washington, D.C.

Unions bargain together

To help deal with the complexities of such a large health-care system, the USW has entered into cooperative agreements with 27 other unions at Kaiser and with the hospital itself.

The unions bargain with Kaiser as a group and they use a newly developed partnership program with the hospital to try to jointly solve problems and maintain an ongoing dialogue.

Two national contracts have been settled since the unions began the partnership program, which started in 1995 after a disastrous round of contract negotiations led to lower morale.

"You speak as a very loud voice with 28 unions. It's been a really good thing," said Virginia "Jenny" Fortner, the local's treasurer. "Some managers didn't appreciate it but most of them are gone."

Wiles said the cooperative program is "just taking off" after several years of ground work. One immediate benefit is a hospital plan to retrain workers whose jobs are no longer needed as medical records are converted from paper to electronic formats.

"This really works," said Wiles, who praised Kaiser Permanente for its commitment not to displace anyone in the shift from paper records to digital ones. "There's no reason in the world why we can't train a chart clerk to be a lab assistant."

Labor-management committees

Jessie Cortez, the lead linen technician at Riverside, used a labor-management safety committee to press for motorized carts to carry the approximately 9,000 pounds of sheets, blankets and towels that pass through his department daily.

The motorized vehicles, installed in storerooms and the linen department, made a positive difference to on-the-job injury rates, both Cortez and his supervisor, Victor Lemos, said.

Safety committees at Kaiser Permanente helped the hospital system void an estimated 3,400 injuries in 2005 and $77 million in related expenses including medical costs and replacement labor.

The labor-management cooperation was praised by USW members throughout the hospital from housekeeper Mercedes Treveno to Helen Morrison, a front-line customer representative at the hospital's pharmacy in Riverside.

"The more they get along, the better off we all are," Morrison said, smiling broadly after she took a customer's order. "Isn't that true?"