The unions representing nurses and support staff at Akron General are expressing concerns about how the health system’s proposed sale will affect employees and the patients they serve.

“Change, in general, is always scary,” said Mark Whitehurst, chair of the Professional Staff Nurses Association, which represents registered nurses at the hospital. “I think the main concern, honestly, is how is it going to affect what we do day to day? Are we going to have the ability to take care of our patients?”

Akron General Health System last week announced a tentative deal to sell the health system’s assets to a new, for-profit joint venture between national hospital chain Community Health Systems (CHS) and the Cleveland Clinic. CHS would be the majority owner.

Akron General Health System President and Chief Executive Dr. Thomas “Tim” Stover held a series of meetings with employees this week to talk about the possible sale and address their concerns.

The health system is among the region’s largest employers, with more than 5,000 workers.

The new owners “are recognizing our present employees,” Stover said in a recent interview.

When asked whether union contracts will be honored after the sale, officials from Akron General and CHS said it’s too early to provide details until a definitive agreement is reached.

A portion of Akron General employees is represented by two collective bargaining units: the Professional Staff Nurses Association, a local unit of the Ohio Nurses Association representing about 730 registered nurses; and the United Steelworkers of America Local 1014L, representing about 775 technical, clerical and support workers.

Tim O’Daniel, president of the United Steelworkers of America Local 1014L, said he believes the bargaining units and their contracts will remain after the sale.

The support staff’s current three-year contract expires in March 2016.

“There are several ways that an employer, after a sale, could attempt to not honor a contract,” he said. “It involves terminating all the employees and having them reapply for their positions. It would be very foolish on their part to create that type of atmosphere.”

If the new ownership strengthens Akron General, “it’s going to be good,” he said.

However, he added, the union is prepared to fight “if it comes down to eroding any of our rights.”

Kelly Trautner, deputy executive officer for the Ohio Nurses Association, said there’s not enough information available to say whether the sale will be good or bad.

Whitehurst and Trautner said they want the good relations the bargaining unit has had with hospital administration in recent years to continue after the sale.

The nurses’ union contract with Akron General expires in the spring.

Ohio Nurses Association is in contract negotiations at Northside Medical Center for the first successor contract since Community Health Systems acquired the Youngstown hospital and other assets of Forum Health out of bankruptcy in 2010.

“We have some dire safety and quality concerns around staffing,” Trautner said of the negotiations with the Youngstown hospital.

Five of six collective bargaining units at the former Forum Health — now called ValleyCare Health System — have concluded contract negotiations since November, CHS spokeswoman Tomi Galin said. The Ohio Nurses Association has been offered similar proposals, which include wage increases.

After service workers at one ValleyCare hospital recently ratified a three-year contract, a spokesperson for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2804 told the Youngstown Vindicator: “We believe it was a really fair package and that negotiations were conducted on a professional level.”

Michelle Mahon, national representative with National Nurses United, said Community Health Systems has a history of poor labor relations.

The National Nurses Organizing Committee has been battling Affinity Medical Center, a CHS-owned hospital in Massillon, since a vote last year by RNs to join the union.

“The hospital has refused to follow the law and respect nurses rights” by not recognizing the vote in favor of union representation and refusing to bargain for a contract, Mahon said.

Affinity spokeswoman Susan Koosh said in an email that the hospital is challenging the validity of the election, which was 103 to 97 in favor of unionizing.

“While this is a pending legal matter, the hospital can’t engage in bargaining,” she said. “… Our nurses are trusted, valued members of the hospital team and they are treated with respect.”

About 8,000 of the nearly 100,000 Community Health System employees nationwide are represented by unions, Galin said. Negotiating teams at affiliated hospitals include local human resource representatives, supported by labor relation specialists and attorneys.

“Our organization is committed to ethical conduct, to treating employees fairly, and to supporting the quality care they provide their patients,” she said in an email.

Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or cpowell@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.