When trauma nurse Lorraine Thiebaud first began negotiating with the city about providing General Hospital workers a childcare center to leave their kids during 12-hour shifts, her younger son could have benefitted from such an arrangement.

That child is 38 now. His kids are too old to go to childcare. And the city still hasn’t built General Hospital workers that childcare center.

“I used to run around the hospital, saying, ‘How about here? Or how about here?’” recalls Thiebaud, who retired in 2016 after more than 40 years on the job and 20 negotiations on behalf of the Service Employees International Union. “And they’d say ‘Oh, that’s a good space.’ And give it to someone else.”

In 2019, this decades-long song and and dance may come to an end — and the city may be forced to, at long last, provide that childcare center. That’s because an arbitrator ruled in late 2018 that the city had repeatedly blown off written, contractual obligations for decades on end.

“The language for the childcare center — it was so clear,” Rebecca King Morrow, a retired nurse and union leader, said, unsurprised by the ruling.  

The arbitrator’s decision was both a gratifying and frustrating one for the union nurses who’ve been fighting this battle for decades. Gratifying for the one-sidedness of the ruling. Frustrating that it came in 2018.

San Francisco negotiators, Morrow continues, attempted to excise the pledge to provide a childcare center from contract after contract. “But we never forgot about it. We could’ve given this away for something; for more money. We refused to. We were committed to the idea of employers providing childcare.”

The city committed to putting money and effort into projects that could include building a childcare center at SFGH as far back as the 1980s. By 1993, it had formalized the pledge in a collective bargaining agreement:

The childcare center at SFGH [San Francisco General Hospital] shall be designed into any future significant construction at SFGH if a suitable site is not located and childcare center is not established by the time of planning for such construction…

“Shall,” in legislation and contracting is a big word, by the way. Of note, Gandalf told the Balrog “You shall not pass.” Not “you may not pass.”  

“Shall” is binding. Eventually.

For 14 years, the city’s binding commitment — promised and re-promised in subsequent written agreements — remained constrained to the pages of a series of collective bargaining agreements. In 2007, however, it became even more ironclad: 

Within 90 days of the ratification of this agreement, the City agrees to designate a site for a childcare center.

That agreement was ratified more than a decade ago.

In the interim, you may have noticed the amazing new wing of San Francisco General Hospital sprout up, thanks to $887 million in bonded debt approved by the voters of San Francisco as well as private donations from a local tech impresario.

When you expend nearly $1 billion, that should qualify as “significant construction.” And yet, when the SEIU’s Ed Kinchley in 2009 reviewed the blueprints for the new hospital building, he found no designated childcare center.

“My initial thought was, ‘Here they go again!’” Kinchley told Mission Local in December.

Kinchley et al. met in 2009 with then-hospital CEO Gene Marie O’Connell. She pledged — again in writing — that “This Letter is to confirm the commitment of SFGH Administration that space will be designated on the hospital campus for the operation of a childcare center and will be included in future space planning. The availability of this space will be concurrent with the relocation of programs from the current hospital building into the new building.”

In other words, we’re going to move all the stuff out of the old building into this new building, and then you’ll have your childcare center.

That was 10 years ago.

Despite all of the above, the city recently argued before the arbitrator that San Francisco was, in fact, not bound to build that childcare center. And it did so in a way that left Thiebaud, Morrow, and Kinchley — all of whom worked decades in emergency rooms, mind you — aghast.

You get your fair share of citations tossed around in any pitched legal battle. In this case, the city of San Francisco did not cite Otter v. Flounder from the movie Animal House. But it could have.

The essence of that legal argument, you may recall, is “You fucked up! You trusted us!

The City Attorney’s office claimed that the union, by more than seven years, missed its opportunity to file a grievance. This makes sense if you allege, as the city did, that O’Connell — at the time the CEO of San Francisco General Hospital — acted “without City authorization” in assuring her workers they could have the childcare center they’d been repeatedly pledged for 16 years. 

The city’s argument was that the union members were rubes who should have initiated legal action instead of respecting written promises from the CEO of a billion-dollar-a-year public hospital.

You fucked up! You trusted us!

This is, to put it mildly, an antisocial way of doing business. And that line of argumentation certainly seemed to bewilder arbitrator Charles Loughran.

“There is no evidence in this case why [O’Connell] would have needed further authority from the City for the commitment she made, since her assurances were simply that the City would stand by its previous contractual obligation to establish a childcare center on the Hospital campus…” he wrote. “Certainly, the Union would logically have concluded that such a written commitment from the Hospital’s chief executive officer was binding on the City.”

In an Inception-like conclusion, Loughran notes that, even if the union had been late in filing its grievance, the city was, in turn, late in calling out that lateness, rendering the point moot.

In short: Build the damn childcare center.

And now, it looks like that will happen. Must happen. Even shall happen. The arbitrator has ordered the union and city to work out the details. But the major, overarching detail has been worked out: This is moving forward. Now. And, perhaps by the time it’s done, the great-grandchildren of Thibaud and her contemporaries will  be able to use it.

“My youngest son’s daughter is about to go to college,” she says. “But I see other people with these problems now.”

“In my heart,” she continues, “I always believed they’d eventually have to give us a place. And now — I think they’re gonna give us that place.”