2010 News

Temple and nurses settle strike

04.28.2010

Philadelphia Inquirer

Posted on Wed, Apr. 28, 2010

http://www.philly.com/philly/business/20100428_Temple_and_nurses_settle_strike.html

Temple and nurses settle strike

Return to work set Friday

By Jane M. Von Bergen
Inquirer Staff Writer

After four marathon days of negotiating, Temple University Hospital and its 1,500 nurses and allied health professionals reached an agreement Tuesday to end a 28-day strike that began March 31.

The employees plan to return to work at 7 p.m. Friday, assuming the proposed contract is approved during three ratification votes that will occur Wednesday, at 10 a.m. and 3 and 7 p.m.

After the members of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals vote, the proposal will be presented to the management of the Temple University Health System.

As Temple's chief negotiator, Bob Birnbrauer, signed the last paperwork about 9 p.m. just outside the bar at the Holiday Inn in Old City, happy technologists chanted, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, it's back to work we go," over celebratory martinis.

Sitting nearby at the hotel where the two sides had been negotiating since Saturday, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady watched the celebrations with a smile.

He had helped engineer the deal over coffee at the Four Seasons hotel Tuesday morning with Edmond F. Notebaert, Temple's senior executive vice president of health sciences. Notebaert was not at the bargaining table.

Birnbrauer would not comment on the contract Tuesday night. "We are pleased that the two parties returned to the bargaining table so that we were able to reach agreements," Temple's chief executive, Sandy Gomberg, said in a statement. Gomberg reports to Notebaert. The new contract, which expires in October 2013, includes wage increases and provides some tuition reimbursement for dependents, according to sources familiar with it. Both sides declined to detail the terms until the members' meetings Wednesday.

Tuition reimbursement for dependents became the most important issue and one of the last to be resolved.

The contract expired at the end of September, but employees continued to work under its terms while unproductive negotiations continued.

By the time the union gave its legally required 10-day advance strike notice, outstanding issues included wages, health benefits, a new clause forbidding employees from disparaging the hospital, and the withdrawal of tuition reimbursement for dependents, a longtime benefit. Management said that it was already paying at the top of the scale and that the union's requests were unrealistic given the economic and market realities for hospitals.

Over the last two years, the hiring situation for nurses and allied health professionals has changed from shortage to glut, as area hospitals have laid off workers and, in some cases, closed. The strike began at 7 a.m. on a beautiful, sunny day. Though in high spirits as their picket line spilled onto North Broad Street, nurses and other staff members also expressed concern about their patients. The hospital imported more than 850 replacement workers, who flew in from all over the country and double-bunked at the Sheraton Philadelphia City Center, all expenses paid. Working 12-hour shifts for days on end, they racked up overtime. Some had been laid off in their hometowns.

While Temple administrators said the hospital was being run smoothly, striking workers relayed reports of poor care from sympathetic colleagues inside.

Stacy Mitchell, deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said that her agency had investigated "a lot" of complaints about the hospital since the strike began but that the results of those investigations would not be available until mid-May.

As the strike continued, the union pulled in support from other labor organizations. At one rally, leaders read a letter from the filmmaker Michael Moore, whose movie Sicko criticized the U.S. health system.

Wendell Potter, a former top health-insurance executive and now an advocate for policies that would rein in health insurers, also spoke to the group. The union rallied at City Hall and, as recently as this weekend, outside a Temple fund-raiser at the National Constitution Center.

By the end of the first week, hospital board members had reached out to Brady, who often mediates labor disputes.

But political pressure on management started before the strike. On March 24, 11 Pennsylvania legislators sent a letter to Temple University president Ann Weaver Hart and Notebaert urging them to "return to the table with a new openness on the issues," and pointing out that employees "have indicated their desire to avoid a strike by working for a significant period of time beyond the expiration of their agreement."

Once the strike began, Brady said he would become involved. Two brief days of talks ensued on April 6 and 7, the first negotiations since before the strike. But they broke off quickly. There were no further talks until Saturday. Earlier last week, union officials visited Harrisburg to speak to Philadelphia's delegation. The hospital is partly funded by the state.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, there had been some contacts between Philadelphia legislators and the hospital leadership, including Notebaert. Brady had also been in touch with Hart.

The statewide union is headed by Patricia Eakin, an emergency-room nurse at Temple. The executive director is Bill Cruice.

On Friday, shortly after those contacts, there was an announcement that negotiations would resume Saturday. Since then, there had been long days at the Holiday Inn, where negotiators had been holed up. Brady himself spent some time at the hotel Monday and had been in touch with both sides.

Negotiators met at 10 a.m. Sunday and finished at 2:30 a.m. Monday before reconvening at 11 a.m. Monday for a session that ended at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday. The two sides resumed shortly after 1 p.m. Tuesday. The agreement was reached about 9 p.m.

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

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