March 18, 2019

Nurses drop strike threat, but talks produce no accord

BANGOR – Negotiators for the nurses union at Eastern Maine Medical Center on Tuesday withdrew the formal 10-day notice of their intention to strike that was issued Monday. But as the day closed on an emergency bargaining session and last-ditch effort to avert the nursing strike, negotiators from both sides announced they had come up empty-handed.

Union representatives said Tuesday that a one-day strike remains a clear possibility, but hospital officials urged the union to let nurses vote on its final contract offer before ordering the walk-out. EMMC nurses have been working without a contract since their three-year agreement expired at midnight Sunday. The Federal Labor Relations Board has scheduled another meeting with the two parties on Tuesday, Oct. 23.

At a late-afternoon press conference called by the bargaining team for the Maine State Nurses Association, Unit 1 president and EMMC staff nurse Judy Brown said the union started the day certain that an agreement would be reached.

“We were so confident that we would reach resolution today that in a gesture of good faith we immediately withdrew our notice of a strike. Unfortunately, management refused to consider our new package proposal,” said Brown, reading from a prepared statement.

The hospital and the union are stalemated over the configuration of a “professional practice committee” that would give nurses a greater say on issues such as staffing and technology. At Tuesday’s session with a federal mediator, the union revised its proposal to come more closely in line with the hospital’s, including removing a contentious section that would have required intervention by a third-party arbitrator if the hospital disagreed with the recommendations of the committee.

“Our … proposal withdrew that component leaving the ultimate decision to the chief nursing officer,” Brown said. The MSNA’s new proposal limited the makeup of the committee to direct-care nurses only, as the union has demanded all along, but offered formalized quarterly meetings with nurse managers to discuss recommendations before sending them to the chief nursing officer.

The hospital had proposed a committee composed of half direct-care nurses and half nurse managers, with nurse managers responsible for communicating recommendations directly to the administration.

The hospital rejected the union’s proposal outright on Tuesday and said in a statement that its “last, best and final offer” remains on the table.

The hospital’s offer was presented and rejected last Sunday, two days after MSNA had its members vote on authorizing the union to call a strike if negotiations failed. With about two-thirds of the unit’s 870 members voting, 92 percent voted to give MSNA negotiators the power to call the strike. That authority is still in place, and Brown said Tuesday there’s no plan to bring the vote to nurses again.

“They’ve already voted. We have the authority we need,” she said.

Greg Howat, the hospital’s chief negotiator and vice president for human resources, said Monday evening that nurses were forced to vote “prematurely” and should be offered the opportunity again.

“We’re hearing from our nurses … that they’d love to have a chance to vote on [the contract] again because they’re in favor of it,” he said.

Howat reiterated the hospital’s discomfort with MSNA’s recent affiliation with the California Nurses Association. The hospital agrees “in concept” with the idea of a professional practice committee for nurses, he said, but is unwilling for that committee to reflect the politics of the California organization. The CNA is widely regarded as having backed first-in-the-nation legislation in that state that established mandated nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, a measure Maine hospitals have worked aggressively to defeat when it has been proposed here.

Brown said informational sessions for EMMC nurses will be held Thursday. She would not comment on whether the union will issue another strike notice. By law, the union must give the hospital a 10-day notice before a planned walk-out.

Howat said EMMC is prepared to weather the strike if it is called, in part by bringing in outside nurses if necessary. He acknowledged that the strike will be expensive for the hospital.

“But we’re more concerned about the long-term intended or unintended consequences” of the MSNA proposal, he said. “We expect that whatever’s in that contract will be there a long, long time.”

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