Hospital strikes loom in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Massachusetts

Nurses and other unionized healthcare workers in at least three states are considering walking off the job if contract negotiations with hospitals don't address their concerns. Those concerns are wide-ranging, but pension benefits figure heavily in most disputes.

In Pennsylvania, 1,500 employees at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia could go on strike this week due to conflicts over pay increases, health benefits, tuition benefits for employees' children and random drug testing for union members, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) has set 7 a.m. Wednesday as its strike deadline. PASNAP represents 1,000 registered nurses and 500 additional workers, including respiratory therapists and social workers. The last bargaining session between the two sides was on March 15, and the talks are in mediation.

Temple has already hired 850 temporary workers, primarily through HealthSource Global Staffing in California, who are in the process of arriving for orientation. The HealthSource website states that its workers can earn up to $6,000 a week, as well as staying in luxury hotels. Philadelphia-area nurses have been receiving "robo calls" telling them they could earn up to $10,000 a week crossing picket lines, says Bill Cruice, PASNAP's executive director.

Temple CEO Sandy Gomberg acknowledges she has been repeatedly asked why Temple can't just put the money for temporary workers into the new contract. However, Temple nurses are already the best-paid in the region according to a "proprietary" survey by the Delaware Valley Healthcare Council, she charges. Temple nurses earned an average of $39.80 before overtime in 2009, and 30 percent earned more than $100,000, according to the hospital.

In Minnesota, the labor contract between 12,000 nurses and six Twin Cities hospital systems (North Memorial, HealthEast, Allina, Methodist, Children's and Fairview) is set to expire May 31, reports Workday Minnesota. Negotiations are ongoing, but the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) has scheduled a May 19 vote to either ratify a new contract or authorize a strike. Registered nurse (RN) staffing levels and the nurses' pension fund are the two key issues holding up talks. The hospitals seek to cut nurses' pension funding by a third (back to 1968 levels), says MNA President Linda Hamilton.

In Massachusetts, more than 400 nurses, physical therapists and other workers at Morton Hospital and Medical Center in Taunton are considering a strike now that contract negotiations with hospital management have been stalled for months, according to the Boston Globe. The union contract expired March 8.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) seeks an end to mandatory overtime shifts that force some employees to work more than 12 hours. The union also wants to stop the hospital from moving the nurses' traditional pension plans to contribution-based funds, primarily 401(k) plans.

Morton nurses have filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that Morton hasn't engaged in "good faith negotiations" due to its plan to "unilaterally dismantle the nurses' defined benefit pension plan on March 31, even though the parties are still involved in negotiations over a number of outstanding issues blocking a comprehensive contract settlement."

To learn more:
- read this Philadelphia Inquirer article
- check out this Workday Minnesota article
- read this Boston Globe article and the MNA press release