Agreement reached in the strike of Saint-Vincent; Senator Kennedy involved


FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story was originally published on May 12, 2000. It details a resolution from a previous strike.

WORCESTER – Nurses and hospital officials at Worcester Medical Center walked out of five hours of negotiations yesterday at Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s office in Washington, DC to announce that they had reached a tentative agreement to end to the 42-day strike by nurses.

Under the agreement, which must be ratified by the union, nurses can be required to work up to four hours of overtime per shift no more than twice per quarter, or eight times per year. The agreement also allows nurses to refuse overtime due to illness or fatigue.

Union officials were euphoric.

“From our point of view, it’s total slam-dunk,” said David J. Schildmeier, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents nurses. “They said they would never, ever take a contract with shifts of less than 16 hours. Well, never, never has happened. It’s extremely strong language. ”

The 17 members of the nurses’ bargaining team celebrated last night at the Dubliner Bar in Washington, where Mr. Kennedy offered them burgers and beer.

“It’s pretty fantastic,” said Julie Pinkham, director of the association’s work program, as nurses cheered behind her at the Dubliner. “They went ahead and accepted all of our requests. Senator Kennedy and Representative (James P.) McGovern told them, “These nurses are right on this issue. ”

“REVOLUTION IN NURSING CARE”

Robert E. Maher Jr., chief executive of the medical center, said hospital officials realized it was time to settle the strike for the good of the hospital and the community.

The hospital has also acknowledged that nurses are ready to take a stand on mandatory overtime – with the backing of many politicians, Maher said.

“We have come to the conclusion that we are at the start of a revolution in nursing and we are at the forefront of it,” he said. “We believe nurses across the United States are prepared to work long and hard to fight mandatory overtime. We could have fought back and let it drag on, but it’s not good for anyone. ”

With city councilors and Mayor Raymond V. Mariano holding daily press conferences on the strike, and with nurses criticizing the care at the medical center, the pressure has become too much of a distraction, Maher said.

“Cost was a factor, damage to our reputation was a factor, distraction was a factor,” he said. “ Every day there was a new press conference to criticize us in one way or another. We had to recognize that this is a national trend and move on. ”

VOTING POSSIBLE WEDNESDAY

The tentative deal, which will be part of a three-year contract if ratified, is identical to the most recent proposal presented by the union last week.

Details of the nurses’ return to work were still being worked out yesterday. The union hopes to hold the ratification vote by Wednesday, Schildmeier said.

If the deal is ratified, nurses will return to work between June 1 and 11, depending on the deal. Hospital officials said they would spend most of the next week deciding on the departure of more than 100 replacement nurses and how to direct returning nurses to the new hospital.

Most of the striking nurses have yet to be referred to Worcester Medical Center, which on April 3 replaced St. Vincent’s Hospital, where they previously worked. Nurses went on strike over opposing the hospital’s demand for the right to demand up to eight hours of overtime as often as needed.

The hospital still retains the right, for another two years, to send nurses home on less busy days, Maher said. This will give the hospital the ability to manage staffing levels with less overtime, he said. Under the tentative agreement, the hospital will be able to send nurses home for seven days in the first year of the contract and four days in the second year.

MEDIATION REQUESTED

An investigation last week by the state’s public health department into the medical center’s operations during the strike did not play a role in the settlement, hospital officials said. This investigation ended on Friday.

DPH Deputy Commissioner Paul R. Jacobsen said yesterday he did not know when the findings of that investigation would be available. Earlier reports from the ministry revealed that three replacement nurses were fired by the hospital for poor performance. One of them wrongly gave a baby to breastfeed a woman who was not his mother. Two others left a recovering surgical patient alone.

The surprising break in the standoff came after Mr Maher traveled to Washington on Wednesday to ask Mr McGovern, a strong supporter of striking nurses, to negotiate a deal. Mr. Maher was joined by Steve Corbeil, Senior Regional Vice President of Tenet Healthcare Corp. of Santa Barbara, Calif., owner of the medical center.

The two spent six hours meeting in Mr. McGovern’s office on Wednesday evening, chatting periodically with Mr. Kennedy and members of the nursing team by phone.

“They went over there to see if the congressman would get involved and fix the issues,” said medical center spokeswoman Paula L. Green. “After last week we didn’t know where to go. “

On May 4, negotiations between the hospital and nurses broke down after nine a.m. when nurses rejected a hospital’s request to resort to binding arbitration.

EARLY ANNOUNCEMENT

The issue of mandatory overtime was resolved at Wednesday night’s meeting with Mr McGovern, Mr Maher said. In fact, before yesterday’s session and before the nurses arrived in Washington, Mr. Maher sent a note to hospital staff announcing the settlement.

“We are delighted to report that we believe we have resolved the main remaining issues between the striking nurses and hospital management,” he wrote. “Today we plan to announce that we have reached an agreement in principle to end the strike. “

Nurses took a 10:30 am flight from Boston to Washington for yesterday’s meeting, where the two sides worked out additional issues.

Nurses were granted the right, for example, to negotiate working conditions in the new center for up to 60 days. After 60 days, these matters will go to expedited arbitration.

“It’s an important victory today,” said McGovern. “Not just for nurses, but for patients. Mr. McGovern said he had “coaxed” the two sides to bridge their differences.

Mr Kennedy said the settlement will have broad implications for union battles over workers’ rights in healthcare disputes nationwide.

“It sends a strong signal to other nurses and other workers across the country that they can win if their cause is right and they stand up for their rights,” he said.

HEALING THE DIVISIONS

Mr Mariano, who was also in Washington yesterday for the talks, said the city can now turn its attention to healing the divisions sparked during the strike.

“Now our community’s job is to start celebrating this world-class facility,” he said.

Nurses went on strike on March 31 after two years of talks that failed to result in a first contract with Tenet. The strike delayed the opening of Worcester Medical Center by two days, but the hospital moved forward with around 125 replacement nurses provided by US Nursing Corp. from Denver.

About 125 other nurses did not participate in the strike and moved to the new medical center on April 3, its first day of operation.

While hospital officials have repeatedly refused to report the cost of the strike, they have admitted that it costs thousands of dollars every week. US Nursing pays its replacement nurses up to $ 4,000 per week, and also pays for their strike flights, as well as their food and accommodation during their stay.

TAX ALLOCATION HEARINGS

Hearings on tax relief for the hospital remain scheduled for the week of May 22. City councilors called the hearings after voicing concerns about the number of jobs created by the construction of the $ 215 million medical center.

The tax deal allows the medical center to pay about $ 40 million less in taxes than it would have paid, provided it meets certain job creation requirements. Hospital officials say they are in compliance with the terms of the deal.

Alex Canizares of States News Service contributed to this article.

Conditions of the tentative agreement

1. Nurses may be required to work up to four hours of overtime per shift, no more than twice per quarter, or eight times per year.

2. Nurses have the right to refuse overtime due to illness or fatigue.

3. The hospital should document the reasons for requesting overtime.

4. Disputes regarding the use of overtime will be referred to a committee. If the committee fails to resolve a dispute, it will be referred to binding arbitration.

5. The hospital should do its best to avoid overtime. Failure to do so could result in grievances from nurses.

6. All nurses will return to work by June 11 at the latest. Their health and dental insurance will resume and they will be reimbursed for all costs incurred during the strike.

Source: Massachusetts Nurses Association and Worcester Medical Center


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