News & Events

Health care workers take another step closer to strike

By Tim Faulkner
Staff writer
Posted Apr 14, 2010 @ 11:20 PM

Taunton – Nurses and other health care workers at Morton Hospital and Medical Center are moving closer to a strike, opting to vote on the measure later this month.

Massachusetts Nurses Association officials decided to hold the vote after Monday’s contract negotiations with hospital management failed to reach an agreement.

“We are tired of the delay in negotiations,” said registered nurse Joyce Wilkins, chair of the local bargaining unit of the MNA, in a prepared statement. “We have had 21 sessions to date. It’s time for management to negotiate in earnest to reach a fair settlement.”

Cara Hart, vice-president of administrative services at Morton, said a strike would prompt the hospital to turn to temporary health care workers to stay open, while harming the hospital’s reputation and discouraging potential patients from visiting Morton.

“We hope to avoid this type on no-win situation for our patients and our staff for the future of our hospital,” she said.

For six months, the union has been fighting plans by the hospital to replace a traditional pension with a 401(k)-type product. The MNA contends that the new 403(b) plan would cut retirement benefits some 36 to 50 percent.

“A one percent cost to them compared to a 50 percent cut to the nurses’ retirement benefit, that to us doesn’t add up,” said David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the MNA.

The 403(b) plan, Hart said, is the same retirement plan the MNA has agreed to for its employees at other hospitals. It’s a plan that helps save money in the “shifting landscape” of declining revenues and reimbursements in the health care industry.

Wilkins contends that the hospital will make $5 to $6 million over the next two years and can afford to spend a fraction of its revenues to keep the less volatile pension plan. The $3 million retirement package given to former hospital CEO Tom Porter, she said, cost more than the pension expenses for all employees last year.

“There is no reason for them to take away any benefits when it represents such a minuscule component of the hospital’s budget — and when they are making money,” Wilkins said.

Hart disputed the figures, saying Porter’s retirement package was not a one-year bonus, but had accrued over 17 years. “The facts are wrong.”

The hospital, she admitted, would have an accounting surplus over the next two years, but only “just enough cash to meet our obligations including the cash contributions made to the pension plan.”

In their latest proposal, the nurses offered a compromise on the pension debate, proposing to reopen the contract after two years. The MNA would then consider retirement plan changes if the hospitals finances had deteriorated.

But Hart said the union was hardly willing to discuss the pension changes, only offering a suggestion that “significantly limits the hospital’s ability in navigate through these serious financial challenges.”

All 400 union employees will participate in vote on April 28. If approved, the measure does not mean staff would strike immediately, but gives the negotiating committee the option to call the strike at any time. The hospital would, however, be given 10 days notice of the strike date.

The strike is an option of last resort and will only be used “ when we feel there is no more room to move,” Schildmeier said.

Fifteen strikes have been authorized by MNA members within the last 16 years, but only three have led to walk outs. In 2007, nurses at the UMass Medical School in Worcester held a strike for five hours over a pension dispute. Mandatory overtime and staffing disputes led a 49-day strike at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester in 2000 and a 103-day strike at Brockton Hospital in 2001.

Despite the increased talk of a strike, the hospital and nurses reached a tentative deal on mandatory overtime, agreeing to impose two “mandates,” or required overtime shifts, per quarter and limiting the day to a maximum 12-hour shift.

“I think were moving on the mandatory overtime issue,” Schildmeier said.

Despite the breakthrough, the tone of the negotiations is still negative.

“The hospital has made several concessions,” Hart said. But after two dozen meetings, “We’re disappointed that the MNA hasn’t made any substantive counterproposals to any of the hospital’s proposals.”

Both sides meet again on April 20.

“None of us want a strike. We want a good faith negotiation for a fair settlement,” Wilkins said.

Hart agreed, “We remain hopeful. We look forward to a productive session.”

Contact Tim Faulkner at