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Hospitals throughout the country are asking their unionized employees for concessions, and ongoing contract talks at Buffalo General Hospital are the first test for the Communications Workers of America.

Morton Bahr, the union's national president, sees the Buffalo General negotiations as crucial to how CWA will react to demands from U.S. hospitals to cut costs in order to remain competitive in a marketplace changed by both managed care and government funding cuts.

"This is the first place we are likely to feel it," he said.

Bahr visited the Buffalo area Thursday to learn first hand about working conditions at Buffalo General, Mercy Hospital and other health care facilities where CWA is active.

The union has more than 600,000 members nationwide, including 10,000 locally. Half of CWA's local membership works in health care.

"What we are finding now within the managed care system is no mechanism for quality assurance," Bahr said in an interview.

"I've heard horror stories today about short staffing, patients sent home prematurely only to have to return to the hospital, and the general lack of concern on the part of hospital management for the quality of care," he added.

Bahr reported that contract bargaining began a few weeks ago between Buffalo General and the CWA's Nurses United, which represents 2,000 nurses, technicians and clerical staff. The hospital wants to cut the salaries of registered nurses by $10,000 per year and drastically change working conditions, he said.

"There won't be a contract" if Buffalo General doesn't change its demands, the national union leader said, pledging to support Nurses United if it authorizes a strike. The current labor pacts expire June 9.

Nurses United members face the threat of job losses because of the hospital's desire to reduce costs, according to Debora M. Hayes, union president and head of the CWA's Western New York council.

She explained that the Nurses United bargaining team is focusing on job security and patient care, which she said is directly tied to staff size.

"What we've said in our internal discussions is, 'What good is your hourly rate if you don't have a job?' Downsizing can be viewed as a serious threat, but it can also be looked at as a challenge," Ms. Hayes said.

Buffalo General officials won't discuss specific details of the proposals they have made to Nurses United.

But Neal Wixson, senior vice president and in-house counsel, said that both the hospital and its unionized employees face serious challenges from Gov. Pataki's proposed cuts in medical reimbursements and from managed care, which reduces and/or eliminates the need for hospital stays for many illnesses.

"We have good labor-management relations, and with that as a foundation, we believe this (contract talks) can come to a successful conclusion," Wixson said.

Bahr acknowledged that while the union objects to how hospitals are addressing the competitive pressures caused by managed care, it does not oppose managed care.

In fact, CWA has saved AT&T and other employers billions of dollars a year by negotiating contracts with good, but cost-effective medical benefits.

"Managed care is not here to stay," Bahr predicted. "It's a phenomenon aimed at containing costs -- and it will in the short term. But the medical Consumer Price Index is increasing and managed care is just a transitional step on the road to national health care," he said.

In a wide-ranging interview, Bahr discussed many issues facing the union and its members, including:

Information superhighway -- CWA is convinced that the telephone companies will control the future delivery of information and entertainment.

Bahr said there is a "convergence" among radio, television, newspapers, movies, computers and telecommunications. A new multimedia industry is being created. "CWA is the only union in a position to be the umbrella organization representing workers in this industry," he said.

Since 1988, CWA has negotiated merger agreements with three smaller media-related unions -- International Typographical Union, National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, and The Newspaper Guild. All except the Guild now are CWA affiliates. The Guild is expected to consider the merger proposal at its convention this summer.

Training: CWA has agreements with Nynex and AT&T under which the companies pay for their workers to go back to school in order to learn the skills necessary for new jobs. Bahr said these programs are designed to make people more valuable to their employer, and to help those who are in danger of being displaced by technology. "Education is the only solution for the worker," he said.

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