A Steward’s Perspective on OHSU’s Counter-proposal

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— guest post by lead steward Trisha Crabb —

When the discussion first arose about proposed contract language regarding stewards earning overtime, I had two immediate and completely opposite thoughts:

  1. I can understand how a business operation would be concerned about making sure overtime work is earned appropriately.
  2. I believe there are a number of OHSU departments whose supervisors would use this proposed change to schedule stewards for overtime, knowing that the costs would not have to be paid out of the department’s budget because that employee used steward time during a pay period.

Then I attended our monthly steward meeting and my position evolved.  It is very clear to me that this is a specific and targeted proposal to chill union activity. OHSU’s proposed steward language targets people who are committed to helping make OHSU a better place for AFSCME-represented employees, and, by extension, all other OHSU employees.

Since I serve as a lead steward, I was able to run a report to clarify for myself exactly what kind of activity we are talking about here. We are not talking about our unit stewards, who use one or two hours of steward time each month to attend a meeting and participate in incidental training or communication events. Rather, OHSU’s proposal targets the activity of a core group of employees who step forward to provide assistance to fellow employees experiencing a wide range of challenges.

From January 1 through March 18, Local 328 stewards resolved 126 cases. These ranged from answering questions (Can I be pulled from my current position to go work in another department for a day due to staffing issues? If I don’t have enough accrued time to cover an approved and paid-for vacation, will I face disciplinary action if I take the time off as unpaid? Do I need to pay back a retention bonus if I make an internal job change?) to representing employees in investigatory meetings over matters like attendance problems, parking violations, personnel conflicts, policy violations, and dismissal hearings.

Our union’s stewards have also worked together with Local 328 staff to close cases involving wage adjustments, layoff procedures and rehiring challenges. Sometimes these cases involved changes that not only affect the single employee involved in the case but also make sweeping changes throughout OHSU.

Early in negotiations, AFSCME proposed an increase in the number of stewards and hours our union has available to help enforce the contract and assist employees. Here’s why: As of about a week ago, there were 43 OHSU employees with active cases, who need the support of our union’s stewards and staff representatives. Our union represents almost 7,000 OHSU employees, with only about 30 stewards rotating through handling cases on a daily basis.

Although our union asked for an increase, we don’t expect a huge jump in the number of stewards we have, and our bargaining team explained our reasoning at the table. Why has OHSU stated that it agrees with our union’s proposal to increase the potential number of stewards, yet made a counterproposal that would create a financial hardship for many of our current stewards and potentially dampen our union’s ability to recruit new stewards? Steward overtime costs shouldn’t be a huge concern to a financially sound institution with a multi-billion dollar budget, but the financial impact and emotional toll on the affected employees is high. So why exactly is OHSU presenting a proposal that would change how the pay is handled for a small handful of employees?

OHSU is legally and morally obligated to treat its employees with the same levels of respect and manage its employees using specific processes, often governed by a union contract — processes that protect both the employee and the employer. AFSCME Local 328 stewards play an active and critical role in ensuring that OHSU’s contractual obligations are followed, and this work benefits OHSU itself as well as its employees. Our stewards not only assist with enforcing the language of our written contract — they also foster a spirit of communal effort to that ensure that all people are treated with dignity.

OHSU strives to set the standard for integrity, compassion and leadership (at least that what its marketing messages imply) and is working to become a national leader in health care and research. You don’t become a leader by stifling the activities of people working every day to uphold the standards of transparency, fairness, and service excellence. I hope that OHSU will pull its steward language off the table and show us that it truly values the hard work our stewards do for OHSU and our union.

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