Bill Boyarsky
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A union view of MLK hospital

John Tanner, the executive director of Local 721 of the Service Employees International Union, was unhappy about how I described the staff at the now closed Martin Luther King Jr. county hospital.

I had written in LA Observed, “A great weakness of the old hospital was a poorly trained and indifferent staff, all but immune from discipline because of union contracts, county civil service rules and incompetent administrators. When anyone attempted to crack down, the unions would go whining to the Board of Supervisors.”

After receiving his e-mail, I drove over to union headquarters, west of downtown Los Angeles, and listened to what he had to say. It’s an important issue because the success or failure of the new hospital replacing the old King will depend on the dedication and skill of its doctors, nurses, aides, and maintenance workers.

He said I was wrong to blame the union contracts. The employees at other county hospitals, including respected Rancho Los Amigos and Harbor, have the same contracts. I thought that was a good point. But I pointed out that the King situation was more complicated: the King workers had been backed by politically influential longtime leaders of the African American community who felt they had a proprietary interest in the hospital and resisted any change.

Rather than dwell on the failure of the old King, Tanner wanted to talk about the future. He became executive director of the union as the old hospital was being closed. He didn’t object to the Times’ exposes. The hospital, he said, “lost sight of its patient focus.”

When the new hospital opens, his union will seek to represent the workers. It will be probably be opposed by the rival National Union of Healthcare Workers.

He said his local would seek a “quality partnership” with the management of the new hospital, with nurses, aides and others involved in deciding the many details of operating the place. These range from identifying patients correctly and administering medicine to preventing infection and hearing patient complaints. They sound simple, sort of the minimum anyone would expect in a hospital. But failure to accomplish these tasks was instrumental in King’s downfall.

Local 721 is trying out its partnership idea at the big walk- in urgent care center adjacent to the site of the new hospital. But Tanner said it is slow going. County human relations officials are reluctant to try something new. “Collaborative efforts are outside the experience of the county and unions, “ he said. The first meeting between the county officials and the union was held last November, but nothing much has been accomplished. County officials asked for a delay.

Having spent too much time covering county government, I wasn’t surprised at its slow pace and reluctance to change.

But if workers and management don’t create a better work culture the new King will probably suffer the same fate as the old.

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