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UMass Memorial Nurses Prepared to Strike

Thursday, April 11, 2013

 

Nurses at Worcester's UMass Memorial are prepared to strike, as they schedule an authorization vote for a one-day strike against "poor patient care conditions."

Staff members at UMass Memorial hospital have been involved in heated talks with the hospital’s administration, with the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) union at their side. This time, 2,000 of the hospital’s nurses are ready to take it to the next level.

A vote will take place April 11th to decide whether the nurses will take this next step.

In a statement released by UMass Memorial, the hospital said, “We are very disappointed to learn that the MNA has scheduled a strike authorization vote and that they have issued a press release with inaccurate and misleading statements. As the MNA and its national partner, the National Nurses United, have repeatedly demonstrated, rather than working cooperatively to address the profound changes occurring in health care, their preferred approach to negotiations is to use the threat of a strike…”

“No nurse wants to strike, but we have no other option as management continues to refuse to heed our concerns for the safety of our patients in the wake of unprecedented and unwarranted cuts to RN staffing levels on both campuses of the UMass Memorial system,” said Margaret McLoughlin, RN, a nurse in the intensive care unit and co-chair of the local MNA unit.

Escalating Problems

In the last few months, nurses at UMass Memorial Hospital have picketed and also met in Worcester with the Health Policy Commission to fight against mandatory overtime practices being used at local hospitals, something area nurses say is being done to skirt the issue of poor staffing.

State legislators and healthcare advocates, including the president of the Mass. AFL-CIO, Steve Tolman, came to support the nurses as they voiced their concerns.

Christmastime saw nurses picketing outside the hospital for twelve days, against what the MNA called “dangerous mismanagement” and “greedy proposals.”

When asked at the end of last year whether or not she thought striking would come up, MNA staff member, Wendy McGill, said that in their long pursuit of two contracts to improve their working conditions and quality, UMass Memorial has always handled the nurses at the hospital and the nurses at the campus location very separately due to the fear of striking.

“The other major unions that represent workers at the hospital – they have single bargaining units and are all under one contract. We have been asking the employer to agree to similar arrangements for us,” she said.
“They like to keep up separate. They said it, then retracted the statement, ‘We’re afraid you’ll strike.’ If Memorial strikes, they’re presuming they could move patients to the campus,” McGill said. “But the reality is they can’t. We can figure this out, and if we wanted to, we could.”

The nurses and management officially began negotiations for a new union contract in February 2012 for the University campus nurses, and in November 2011 for the Memorial/Hahnemann campus nurses.

According to the MNA, more than 20 sessions have been held to date with each of the two committees. The nurses’ contracts officially expired on December 31, 2011 and April 5, 2012 respectively, and the next negotiating session is scheduled for April 12 with the University campus committee and April 17 with the Memorial/Hahnemann campus committee.

UMass Memorial said, “Over the last several months, UMass Memorial Medical Center has negotiated in good faith with the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) toward a fair contract resolution that is in the best interests of our patients, our nurses and UMass Memorial Medical Center.”

Clashing Words

In a statement provided by UMass Memorial, the hospital administration said it was “disappointed” with the strike authorization vote.

The hospital says that the MNA would rather “use the threat of a strike and allegations of unsafe staffing as tools to achieve their bargaining objectives despite the impact that such tactics have on patients and employees.”

Heated words have been exchanged, as Colleen Wolfe, co-chair of the MNA local bargaining unit said, "We are appalled that with all the data supporting our plea for safe staffing, the management team at UMass Memorial has opted to disregard the numerous studies and directed the nurses to 'do more with less.'”

Staffing Levels

The strike vote was called after the 2,000 nurses represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association/National Nurses United on the University Hospital and Memorial/Hahnemann campuses of UMMMC have been engaged in over a year of negotiations for a new union contract, with little progress on a number of key issues, including the nurses’ call for safer RN staffing levels.

UMass Memorial stood by its commitment to patients, saying, “We stand by the high quality and safe care that we provide patients at the medical center. At UMass Memorial, our patients always have been, and always will be, our highest priority.”

“The public needs to know that if UMass management has its way, there may not be a nurse at your bedside when you need one. Their desire to boost profits by cutting your care could ultimately cost your life,” McLoughlin said.

Nurses involved in the protests have said that the low staffing levels at UMass Memorial directly affect their ability to take care of patients, something the hospital disagrees with entirely.

“We are committed to maintaining appropriate staffing levels at the Medical Center to provide the high level of care our patients expect and deserve,” the hospital said in a statement. “We disagree with the MNA’s mandatory staffing ratio proposal because studies have shown that mandated ratios do not improve the quality of care.”

UMass Memorial said that for this reason, hospitals across the country have consistently rejected efforts to put mandatory staffing ratios into collective bargaining agreements. Still, the MNA and the group of local nurses attest that the current staffing levels are impeding their work.

“When nurses have too many patients to care for at one time, complications are more likely and at UMass, we have been warning management about these conditions for two years, yet they continue to cut staff,” said Lynne Starbard, RN, a maternity nurse and co-chair of the local bargaining unit on the UMass Memorial Hospital campus, whose unit has seen some of the deepest cuts in the past year.

Nurses are also outraged at threats to their benefit packages and pension cuts.

UMass Memorial pointed out that non-union nurses have already agreed to the currently established staffing levels and regulations, saying, “We believe strongly the outcome should also be consistent with the shared sacrifices that the Medical Center’s non-union managers and staff and five other labor unions representing thousands of employees have already agreed to.”

Nurses speaking to the Health Policy Commission in February.

Miscommunication

Nurses who have spoken out about the issue say that they feel disrespected by the hospital’s administration. Issues have been longstanding, with both sides seeing different viewpoints on the issues of staffing and overtime pay.

UMass Memorial nurse, Margaret McLoughlin, said that there is a “disconnect and disrespect” at the hospital right now.
“With a hospital continuing to make drastic cuts, it’s going to affect the patients. I’m not sure the hospital understands the magnitude of the impact,” she said. “With the hospital being run like it is, it’s making it nearly impossible to put patients first.”

The Next Move

The strike authorization vote has been scheduled to take place throughout the day and into the evening on Thursday, April 11. Nurses will cast their vote by secret ballot at Coral Seafood Restaurant in Worcester.

Voting will take place from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

According to the MNA, the vote does not mean the nurses would strike immediately. It gives the negotiating committees the authorization to call a one-day strike if and when they feel it is necessary. Once the committee issues its official notice to strike, the hospital would then have ten days before the nurses would go out on strike.

UMass Memorial said in their statement that the hospital has put forward comprehensive staffing proposals that address specific areas of focus without resorting to mandated staffing ratios.

“We have also already agreed to 16 of the MNA’s proposals on other issues,” they said. 

 

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