News & Events

Tufts, Saint Vincent nurses plan May 6 strike

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Temporary workers already in place, hospitals say

By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / April 26, 2011

The union representing registered nurses at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester yesterday notified both health care providers that it plans a one-day strike on May 6 to dramatize the nurses’ demand for higher staffing levels.

About 1,000 nurses are expected to walk off the job that day at Tufts in what the union says would be the first strike at a Boston teaching hospital in more than 25 years. About 740 plan to strike at Saint Vincent, a for-profit hospital owned by Vanguard Health Systems. Federal law requires unions to give hospitals 10 days notice before striking.

While members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association took strike authorization votes earlier this month at both hospitals, yesterday’s notifications raised the stakes in the increasingly tense standoff. Both hospitals have plans to bring in replacement nurses for at least five days. In other words, should the nurses walk out May 6, they won’t be allowed to return until May 11 at the earliest, hospital officials said.

Management at Tufts and Saint Vincent presented union representatives with what was termed their “last, best, and final offers’’ at contract negotiations yesterday, offers that didn’t include concessions demanded by the union on what it considers “safe staffing’’ levels.

“Both of these hospitals have created the worst staffing conditions in their respective cities,’’ said David Schildmeier, spokesman for the Canton-based nurses association. “Both of them seem committed to forcing a strike rather than fixing the problem.’’

Hospital officials insisted they have maintained or improved their health care quality and safety while taking steps to make their staffing operations more efficient. They said the Massachusetts union is coordinating the strike with affiliates in Maine, Minnesota, and California, where nurses also plan to strike the first week of May, as a way to drive up the cost of the hospitals hiring replacement workers.

“We’ve made it clear that we will never agree to mandated staffing ratios for the self-serving purpose of increasing union rolls,’’ said Ellen Zane, president of Tufts Medical Center, an affiliate of Tufts Medical School. “It is an irresponsible request at a time when everybody in the country is looking under every rock for nickels for health care.’’

Zane estimated the strike would cost Tufts about $4.2 million. The hospital would hire the replacement nurses for five days because of its contract with US Nursing, an agency that specializes in providing replacement workers in hospital strikes. The contract guarantees a minimum number of hours for the workers.

At Saint Vincent, spokesman Dennis Irish said that, while some staff nurses would be called back after five days, others could remain out longer. “This is a callous, deliberate attempt on the part of the MNA to cripple our attempt to provide care to patients,’’ Irish said.

At issue at Tufts and Saint Vincent, as well as at other hospitals in Massachusetts and across the country, are the number of patients assigned to each nurse. While the ratios vary by hospital and shift, an increasing number of hospitals have reduced staff levels as part of a broader effort to streamline operations, in some cases assigning tasks once handled by full-time nurses to part-timers or technicians. The union has proposed mandating higher staffing levels in the contracts.

Barbara S. Tiller, a registered nurse who chairs the Tufts bargaining unit said management there won’t discuss mandatory staffing levels or relief for nurses in “extreme situations’’ in which they are handling too many patients. “Nurses are taking one to two patients more on each shift,’’ Tiller said. “You’re drowning yourself, and you can’t help your peers, and you can’t get help yourself.’’

While the union has given notice of its intent to strike at Tufts and Saint Vincent, the actions still could be averted if the parties reach a settlement before May 6. Zane, the Tufts president, said the parties could continue discussions during the next 10 days. Disputes over nurses’ staffing levels have also figured into contract negotiations at Cooley Dickinson in Northampton and Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield.

Robert Weisman can be reached at