TAUNTON, Mass., March 24 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The registered nurses and health professionals of Morton Hospital have filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against the hospital, for its refusal to engage in good faith negotiations with the nurses in their effort to reach agreement on a new union contract. The charge relates to the hospitals stated 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.
"The hospital's lack of respect for its staff appears to extend to labor law itself, as our management is willing to blatantly ignore their obligation to bargain with us, and just take away our pension whether we like it or not," said Joyce Wilkins, RN, chair of the Massachusetts Nurses Association's local bargaining unit at Morton Hospital. "The union professionals at this hospital, who have always enjoyed labor peace with management and an honest give-and-take on issues, are outraged by the hard line stance being taken by our administrative team in this contract negotiation. This is a vitally important benefit for our members and we don't appreciate being bullied into losing it."
The plan to cut the nurses' pension plan, which would result in a 36-50 percent cut to the nurses' retirement benefit, has outraged the nurses, who have been meeting in recent days to consider their options, including a decision to hold a vote to authorize a strike over this, and other outstanding issues, including the hospital's refusal to agree to strict limits on the use of mandatory overtime as a staffing mechanism and a proposal to increase nurses' health insurance premiums and co-pays.
The nurses union is also considering filing a second charge against the hospital for its failure to present information requested that details specific financial information about the hospital's spending on executives' salaries and benefits, the value of its real estate holdings and the salaries and bonuses for physicians at the hospital. The request was driven by earlier disclosures that the hospital is making healthy profits and has awarded its outgoing CEO an astounding $3 million retirement bonus at the same time it is looking to strip its staff of their pension. The nurses are also requesting information on what the hospital is paying for its high priced legal counsel, which the nurses' union believes could be as much as $500 - $600 per hour in attorney's fees.
"We have always been willing to make sacrifices on behalf of the hospital when they have been in real financial trouble," Wilkins explained. "But this hospital is making millions in profits and is projected to do so for at least the next two years. They are making that money on the backs of nurses and health professionals, who provide 90 percent of the care patients receive. We see no economic justification for the hospital's decisions to cut our pension, or to use forced overtime as an alternative to providing safe staffing conditions for our patients."
The 400 nurses and health professionals, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, began negotiations for a new contract on October 15, 2009. To date, 18 sessions have been held, with the last four sessions held with a Federal mediator. The nurses' existing contract expired on March 8, 2010. On March 10, union members delivered to management petitions in support of their call for an end to mandatory overtime and protection of their pension, which was signed by more than 85 percent of the professional staff. On March 17, more than 300 union members participated in an informational picket outside the hospital, drawing overwhelming support from the public.
Talks on Tuesday Yield Little Movement on Key Issues
Talks held on March 22, 2010 failed to yield a settlement on the key issues in dispute. While the nurses' union compromised on its proposal regarding mandatory overtime, the hospital made only token moves on the issue, which will allow them to continue to force nurses to work forced overtime without restriction. Contrary to management claims that mandatory overtime is rarely used, the nurses have recorded nearly 100 instances in the last few months where nurses were forced against their will to work extra shifts, a practice that is considered extremely dangerous for patients by medical experts.
The nurses are seeking to limit the number of hours a nurse can be forced to work to 12, which is the standard recommended by medical experts. They want to limit the number of times a nurse could be mandated to work overtime to two times per calendar quarter. And most important of all the nurses want to require the hospital to provide full staffing so mandatory overtime isn't necessary.
"Forced overtime only happens because a hospital does not have the proper number of staff on hand to cover the shifts needed to care for patients," Wilkins explained. "Our management is regularly posting four-week schedules with dozens of holes in the schedule, holes that can only be filled by nurses working overtime. If the occurrence of mandatory overtime is as rare as they claim, then they should have no problem accepting our proposal, which would still provide them with hundreds of shifts per quarter to fill unexpected holes in the schedule. The only reason they won't agree to our proposal is because they want to use mandatory overtime as a staffing tool. "
The parties are set to meet again on March 30, the day prior to the hospital's threatened deadline to unilaterally freeze the nurses' pension.
The nurses union has held open meetings and is meeting individually with its membership to provide information about strikes and to answer member's questions about a potential strike vote, as it continues to evaluate all options to reach a settlement.
"None of us want a strike. We want a good faith negotiation for a fair settlement," said Wilkins. "But we are committed to using our legal rights, including a strike, if our members determine that is what is necessary to protect our interests and the interests of our patients."
SOURCE Massachusetts Nurses Association