News & Events

The power of joint bargaining: success at Caritas

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
November/December 2010 Edition

By Betsy Prescott, RN

My name is Betsy Prescott and I am the chair of the MNA bargaining unit at St. Elizabeth’s, one of six Caritas hospitals that make up the commonwealth’s second largest hospital system. Last January we sent management a request to reopen our contract, and negotiations began soon after.

As usually happens at the time of a contract reopener, we sent out surveys, went through each one and believed we understood our members’ highest priorities. The committee, with MNA leadership, put our proposals in writing. We were ready.

When we were alone

Previously, each of the MNA’s four Caritas bargaining units had always negotiated individually. We all entered into negotiations between the fall of 2009 and the early spring of 2010 with minimal communication occurring between facilities. Meanwhile, changes were occurring in the Caritas system: SEIU was on the scene working with non-health care professionals and they settled a contract that included “paid time off” language—and they settled the same package for each organized Caritas facility, as in “one contract for all.” In the midst of all this, new changes in health care were evident. Economic pressures were forcing out-sourcing and the consolidation of services, and our core contributions for our retirement were eliminated.

The MNA staff recognized these changes and quickly altered our strategy at the table—which meant consolidating and coordinating our bargaining strategy, as in “all units moving on some key issues together” in order to gain the leverage we needed to deal with the new realities.

Stronger together

Shortly thereafter, the four Caritas committees got together and the MNA leadership, with support from the NNU, presented their plan for moving ahead together. We listened. We asked questions. We listened more. We studied. We prepared. We asked more question. We theorized. We shared ideas. And yes, we asked more questions. By then it was all very clear: We were better, stronger, together. Soon after, our union leaders and the MNA leadership began meeting with the employer to discuss a possible strategic alliance. Because our employer wanted labor peace, they agreed to proceed with joint MNA bargaining.

Suddenly, we were in unchartered waters. But we were there together. As joint bargaining began, the union and management were each focused on their own core issues. Caritas management wanted to see a “paid time off” program (i.e., an earned time program) implemented. MNA leadership had its eyes set on the establishment of a Taft-Hartley multiemployer pension plan. Both parties had a lot on the line. As joint negotiations got underway one of the MNA’s Caritas facilities ratified a new contract, but it included language that said upon the completion of a tentative agreement of a limited master agreement, what one facility got all facilities would get. They also agreed to reopen their contract and renegotiate.

That left three committees, three MNA associate directors and Executive Director Julie Pinkham at the table to bargain a limited master agreement. We had power in numbers and we stayed focused on the core issues: retirement and paid time off.

The MNA’s vision of establishing a Taft-Hartley multiemployer pension plan at Caritas was thrilling. The plan—a type of guaranteed retirement plan developed for union employees that allows many different employers to agree collectively to contribute to their employees’ pensions—would be the first in Massachusetts for nurses. Could it become a reality?

Staring at the three-headed dog

While negotiations progressed, the Caritas system was on the cusp of being acquired by a multi-billion dollar private equity firm known as Cerberus—which, ironically, is the name of the three-headed dog that guards the gates of hell in Greek mythology. The process of negotiations for the nurses was now a parallel process with Cerberus. They were taking all the necessary steps to purchase us and to take our system from a non-profit to a for-profit hospital system. Even more worrisome: We would likely be their first venture into the health care sector.

The Caritas leadership, with support from the MNA and NNU, began the process of educating members about what such an acquisition could mean and why it was more important than ever to participate in open meetings as well as to review pertinent mailings, bulletin boards and Web postings. All this work paid off. The groups stayed connected, stayed informed and stayed focused, and at the end of August there was a tentative agreement in place for a limited master agreement.

Working for individual units

The work of negotiating contracts for individual units began soon after, a process that was managed on a unit-by-unit basis in order to best protect/improve what was important to nurses from each hospital. Things with management on this front began well, but then something changed. Endless takeaways were proposed, as were substandard financial proposals, and nearly every MNA proposal put on the table was rejected.

What had changed so drastically in two weeks? Well, we learned that if major obstacles in the acquisition process were not overcome, two hospitals might close—St. Elizabeth’s being one of them. The threat was real and the nurses were scared. We even walked away from one table without a return date.

Eventually all four committees met with management again, and an open dialogue resumed. Each bargaining unit then entered into a marathon bargaining session and tentative agreements were settled. These agreements included a lucrative PTO package and a Taft-Hartley multiemployer pension plan. We had made history! After much work by Caritas management, Cerberus leadership, the attorney general, community leaders and the church, the sale of Caritas was signed on Oct. 21 and our MNA contract(s) were ratified by members on Oct. 28.

We have sealed the deal. We are 2,000 members strong and united.