Mountain View Voice

Opinion - January 18, 2013

Hospital, union in a pickle over Measure M

From the very beginning, it was not wise and virtually unprecedented for a disgruntled union to initiate and support a ballot measure to limit the salaries of El Camino Hospital's top executives. Rarely has a union inserted itself into the management of a business that employs its members. Imagine the United Auto Workers seeking a vote on cutting back the salaries of top executives at General Motors and Ford Motor Co. It just isn't done.

We can only assume that the decision to go ahead with the Measure M initiative came in a fit of pique aimed directly at the pay of the top six El Camino executives, including CEO Tomi Ryba, after the hospital's board voted to take away a no-cost healthcare plan from rank and file union members. In fact, Kary Lynch, a psychiatric technician at El Camino and a shop steward for the SEIU-UHW, told a newspaper that Measure M had always been a "bargaining chip" — a statement he later retreated from and which the union vehemently denies.

However, bargaining chip or no, it seems that no one from the SEIU-UHW considered what would happen if Measure M passed.

In the wake of the nationwide occupy movement, the initiative clearly appealed to many in the community. Ryba's salary — with its $695,000 base pay and numerous perks, which enables her to earn close to $1 million annually — was called outrageous by Measure M boosters. The initiative promised to rectify the salaries of Ryba and other top earners at El Camino by limiting pay at the district hospital to more than twice the salary of California Gov. Jerry Brown, or about $350,000 a year.

At the time the union began floating the idea for Measure M, the hospital was standing firm on its decision to eliminate the no-cost health plan and said it would not reconsider. So the spat continued, with the union reaching into its coffers to pay for a signature-gathering campaign to get the measure on the ballot. A hospital representative said some of these paid petitioners who told her that the hospital used public money to pay the high salaries of its top executives — even though El Camino insists all of its employees are paid using revenue generated by the private hospital corporation.

Only after the petitioners had gathered all the needed signatures, the hospital capitulated — announcing its books were in much better shape and restoring a no-cost health benefits package for the rank-and-file. The SEIU-UHW then pulled all support of Measure M, explaining in a two sentence email to the Voice that "our priorities shifted."

Despite the union's change of heart, Measure M passed, riding on the initial momentum provided by the SEIU-UHW and continued public discontentment in widening income inequality.

Fast forward to today, and we see the hospital and its union are in a pickle. Both want to get rid of Measure M, but the union apparently doesn't want to admit that it would be happy to see the measure go. So instead of suing the union to drop the initiative, the hospital suit names Lynch and colleague Laura Huston, who both signed the measure's original paperwork. And although both belong to the SEIU-UHW, the union so far has indicated it will not help them defend the initiative.

"The SEIU-UHW is not a party to the lawsuit and so it has no standing in the case. The proponents will be represented by their own counsel," a union spokesman told the Voice.

Lynch said he does not have the money to defend Measure M, although he plans to do what he can. Despite his "bargaining chip" remark, he insists he misspoke and said the issue has never been about union politics — at least not for him. He has long believed that the top hospital executives are paid way too much, he said.

That may be the perspective of many voters who supported Measure M and who probably won't be happy to see it thrown out if the hospital wins its case.

Whatever happens, when it comes to overseeing a 500-bed hospital with more than $600 million a year in revenue, hospital officials decided that they did not want to scrimp on executive pay. As we have seen at El Camino, profits can fluctuate wildly without a firm hand at the top. There is a world of difference between highly paid hospital executives like Ryba and someone with far less experience who would work for half that price.

Measure M was a bad idea and never should have made the ballot. The union sees that now, and is leaving Lynch to carry the ball, which is a good indicator that Measure M is doomed.

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