As Talks Continue to Stall Over Issues of Poor Staffing, Union Rights, Overburdening of New Nurses and Wages
BOSTON, MA—The registered nurses of the Brigham & Women’s Hospital (BWH) voted overwhelmingly last night to authorize their union leadership to call a strike if necessary in their ongoing negotiations with hospital management. In a unified show of strength, 2,140 nurses cast ballots, with the nurses voting 2,024 to 116 (95 percent) in favor of the strike authorization — the largest nurses’ strike vote in the state’s history.
"With this overwhelming vote, the nurses at this hospital have sent a clear message that they are ready and willing to strike in the defense of our patients, our profession and the future of nursing at Brigham & Women’s Hospital," said Barbara Norton, RN, a nurse in the pediatric intensive care unit and chairperson of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) local bargaining unit at BWH, who announced the result of the vote at a press conference held outside the main entrance to the hospital today. "The unmistakable fact is this hospital, through its disrespect of its nurses and its disregard for the care we deliver, is failing to recruit and retain the staff needed to keep our patients safe."
According to Norton, the vote to strike was fueled by chronically poor staffing levels at the facility, which are compromising the safety of the patients and causing a high turnover of staff on a number of floors. At the press conference, Norton held up a stack of more than 100 official reports filed in the last two months that "document instances at this hospital when the staffing conditions and the patient assignments forced upon nurses threatened the safety of patients," Norton explained. "These reports are filed after nurses have asked for help, have pleaded for more staff, and have done everything they can to convince management to change their course. In each instance, nothing was done; and as a result, each patient under the care of these nurses had their lives placed in jeopardy. This is why we are here today."
Key issues in dispute include:
- Union Rights—The hospital is refusing to agree to contract language that protects union rights for nurses at the facility and their ability to advocate for patients. The proposed contract language, the first of its kind in Massachusetts, is designed to prevent the hospital from exploiting a recent controversial ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, which found that charge nurses (nurses who oversee the flow of patients on a floor) or nurses who perform charge duties may be classified as supervisors, and are thereby ineligible for union membership.
- Protecting Newly Licensed Nurses—The nurses are seeking appropriate restrictions on the responsibilities of newly licensed and newly hired nurses. The overburdening of new nurses by management is a major cause of the high turnover of staff.
- Competitive Wages—The BWH nurses are paid as much as 10 percent below nurses at like-sized hospitals in Boston. The hospital is offering the nurses a two year contract with a 3 percent per year cost-of-living pay raise each year, while the nurses are asking for 5 percent per year to make BWH competitive with other hospitals.
- Sick Time & Disability Benefits—The hospital is seeking to restrict nurses’ access to sick time, while refusing to provide a short-term disability benefit, which was the nurses’ number one priority going into negotiations.
The Brigham nurses are outraged by the hospital’s lack of effort to negotiate a fair settlement with the nurses in light of the fact that Brigham & Women’s Hospital is one the busiest and most profitable hospitals in the state.
According to latest official report of the hospital’s financial performance by the state Division of Healthcare Finance and Policy, Brigham & Women’s profits increased by nearly 120 percent in 2005 to more than $93 million, and the facility posted another $65.8 million in profits through the third quarter of this year alone.
The strike authorization vote does not mean the nurses would be calling for a strike immediately. The vote authorizes the negotiating committee to call a strike at such time as they feel it is necessary. Should the committee decide to issue an official notice to strike, the hospital will have 10 days before the nurses walk off the job. The nurses and management will resume negotiations on Nov. 16.
"This vote is a mandate for change and for the restoration of respect for nurses and for the patients we care for," Norton concluded. "We sincerely hope administration heeds our call and works with us on Thursday to settle our differences for the good of all who depend on this hospital."
The 2,700 nurses of BWH, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association began negotiations on July 13, 2006 with a total of nine negotiating sessions held to date. The contract expired on September 30 but has been extended until Nov. 27.