News & Events

Nurses’ contract disputes raise tension at hospitals

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By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / March 10, 2011

Nurses in contract disputes at several hospitals in Massachusetts, including Tufts Medical Center in Boston and Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, are increasing pressure with informational picketing and protests as hospital administrators warn of a possible strike.

In letters to the state Department of Public Heath and the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, Saint Vincent’s chief executive, Joseph Mullany, said the hospital believes the Massachusetts Nurses Association is planning a “coordinated strike at five New England hospitals’’ on April 22, the Good Friday religious holiday.

In addition to Tufts and Saint Vincent, Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor were named.

The nurses union, which represents more than 23,000 registered nurses at 85 facilities, declined to comment.

“Whether or not we’re planning a strike will be determined by how these negotiations go,’’ said a spokesman for the association, David Schildmeier.

The hospitals and nurses have been negotiating for several months but talks have stalled over issues such as pay, pensions, and staffing levels.

Nurses at Tufts and Saint Vincent are pushing for a ratio of no more than four patients per nurse on medical-surgical floors, for instance. Schildmeier said these nurses often have five to seven patients each.

At Tufts on Monday, nurses participated in a spur-of-the-moment protest known as a flash mob in the hospital’s atrium. Some held up letters that spelled “Patients First, Safe Staffing Now!’’

Both Tufts and Saint Vincent nurses have plans to begin informational picketing in the next few days.

Dennis Irish, a spokesman for Saint Vincent, said the hospital began negotiating with nurses in November 2009. While hospital management hopes for a resolution, he said, it is also preparing “for a labor action.’’

“We have placed a substantive proposal on the table with them that addresses nurse staffing ratios and contains modest salary increases,’’ said Irish, who did not go into detail. “They have yet to respond to that in a comprehensive manner.’’

At Tufts Medical Center, officials said nurses told them they are not planning to strike. “We have taken them at their word,’’ the officials said in a statement.

Saint Vincent administrators last week found handwritten notes in a hospital common area that detailed plans for a strike, including a date and targeted institutions, according to letters to the state.

By law, hospitals must notify state health officials if they believe a strike is imminent.

Yesterday, nurses at Berkshire said they have no immediate plans to strike, but a strike authorization vote is scheduled for March 22.

Gerri Jakacky, cochair of the bargaining unit at Berkshire Medical, said the hospital wants to cut four hours of nurses’ pay per week. Nurses currently work 36 hours — in three 12-hour shifts — but are paid for 40.

“We weren’t looking for raises,’’ Jakacky said. “We just don’t want anything taken away.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at