Arbitrator Rules in Favor of Cooley Dickinson RNs
Says Hospital Violated Nurses Contract When it Unilaterally Froze the Nurses Defined Benefit Pension In January
Orders Hospital to Lift the Freeze and Restore Contributions Retroactively
NORTHAMPTON, MA — In a victory for registered nurses at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, an independent arbitrator has ruled that the hospital violated the nurses’ union contract last January when it froze the Defined Benefit Pension Plan. The arbitrator has ordered the hospital to promptly unfreeze the defined benefit pension plan for the nurses, restore the contribution to the plan retroactive to the date on which the Hospital froze the plan, and to continue to fund the plan going forward.
The arbitration arose after the nurses, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, filed a grievance against the hospital in November 2009, after the management informed the union it had the right to unilaterally freeze the nurses pension benefit, even though there was a three-year contract in place that guaranteed the benefit for the nurses, a benefit that has existed for more than 43 years. The hospital cited changes in pension funding requirements, along with a poor economy as justification for the cut, while the nurses cited the hospital’s posting of more than $8 million in profits and the fact that if they were to make a change in a contractual benefit, they would need to do it when the contract was open for renegotiation, which won’t occur until this August (contract expires Jan 2011).
“We are very pleased that the arbitrator has upheld our contractual rights, and that our retirement benefit will be restored,” said Sally Surgen, RN, chair of the nurses local bargaining unit. “The availability of a defined benefit pension plan has been a key factor in our being able to recruit and retain first-rate staff to deliver first-rate care.”
The arbitrator’s decision is welcome news to the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which has seen a dramatic increase in efforts by health care employers to flaunt union rights and to seek cuts to long standing benefits, particularly pension benefits. Nurses at Morton Hospital in Taunton were preparing to strike over this issue in April after their employer sought to slash their pension, and nurses at North Adams Regional Hospital have recently decided to hold a strike vote over their employers demand for a number of concessions. Last week, the MNA filed an unfair labor practice charge against Cambridge Health Alliance for its decision to cease negotiations after only five sessions, declare impasse and impose a 40 percent cut to the nurses’ retiree health benefit. In March the MNA had filed a similar charge against Quincy Medical Center for their decision to declare impasse, after only six sessions, and implement a wage cut and pension freeze.
“It is very clear that the industry is seeing the current economic climate as an excuse and an opportunity to move aggressively, if not illegally, to gut nurses contracts and benefits,” said Julie Pinkham, RN, MNA executive director. “It is an abhorrent and short sighted tactic that our members will not accept without a strong fight. Nurses are the backbone of the health care system, and these benefits, along with adequate staffing levels and practice conditions are key, not only to their personal financial security, but also for the safety of their patients, and for the success of the industry.”