Safety, Security, Length on Contract, and Need for Good-Faith Bargaining Drive Vote
TAUNTON, Mass. — The nearly 400 registered nurses and healthcare professionals (HCPs) at Steward Morton Hospital in Taunton, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) and who are currently in contract talks with hospital management, cast an overwhelming “yes” vote yesterday authorizing their local union leaders to call a three-day strike should hospital management continue to refuse to bargain over issues that currently affect their ability to deliver the best possible care to patients.
Bogged down in sluggish contract talks since October 2021 due to management’s refusal to negotiate in good faith, the RNs and HCPs voted on May 11. The secret-ballot vote was held outside of the hospital in the MNA’s mobile/RV unit between the hours of 6 a.m. and 8 p.m., as well as at the Northwoods Medical Center location. Despite the fact that the contract was set to expire on October 31, 2021, hospital executives refused requests that the MNA members made beginning in the Spring of 2021 to begin bargaining, agreeing to begin just a few weeks before the expiration.
The vote follows the April 26th filing of federal unfair labor practice charges by the MNA, on behalf of its Morton members, against Steward Morton Hospital. The charges state that “the Employer has bargained in bad faith over several mandatory subjects of bargaining including … the opening of the MORCAP [substance abuse treatment] unit; safety and security; and the effects of the departure of the Compass Medical Group on the terms and conditions of employment for bargaining unit [members].” Steward’s decision to cease making pension contributions is also referenced in the charge. With no explanation they have not made any contributions into the MNA members’ pension plan since the last pay period of 2021. The executives have also categorically refused to discuss proposals to protect staff’s physical safety in the workplace amidst an increase in violence, worsened by social stresses of the pandemic, as well as the region’s growing substance abuse crisis and worsening shortage of psychiatric treatment facilities.
In April the MNA asked for the assistance of a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in the hopes of moving the process forward.
In January, the nurses and HCPs held a highly successful public rally that drew considerable public attention to the fact that Morton, a vitally essential community hospital, was in the dire position of being understaffed as many local caregivers were leaving Taunton to work at other area hospitals — including those in Boston.
Since then, Morton’s RNs and HCPs have been asking hospital executives to do everything possible to “keep healthcare professionals local” by providing the resources, wages and benefits they deserve and that are needed to retain to recruit staff.” That request has fallen on deaf ears, however, and the improvements needed to keep staff in Taunton have slipped further away.
Currently, there are more than 57 vacancies in nursing and more than 150 vacancies for other valuable healthcare professionals. At the same time, Steward is paying exorbitant sums for national “travel nurses” who are temporarily filling some vacancies instead of investing those resources in market competitive wage improvements that could help stabilize the exodus of local community healthcare workers who are deciding to work elsewhere.
Safety, Security, Length on Contract, and Need for Good-Faith Bargaining Also Drive Strike Authorization Vote
Numerous other issues also led to members’ overwhelming “yes” vote to authorize a possible three-day strike. Those include:
- Need for Improved Safety and Security. Long before the pandemic began, Taunton was grappling with a dramatic increase in addiction, homelessness, and the issues that accompany both. But the pandemic pushed many residents in the city and surrounding communities to their mental and emotional breaking points, and no better place can this be seen than inside the walls of Morton Hospital. In fact, last September a staffer was stabbed multiple times outside the hospital by a patient suffering from a mental illness.
The ED is generally beyond full capacity, with many patients waiting extended periods of time for mental-health and addiction-recovery beds/resources. As patients and their families wait endlessly for beds and resources, emotions run high and stress bubbles over.
“As part of contract talks, we have asked that the hospital hire additional security guards,” said Jacqui Fitts, RN and chairperson of the MNA bargaining unit at Morton. “We have also proposed, among other things, improving lighting outside where patients and staff need to walk and park. These are very basic improvements that will go a long way in keeping patients and staff safe. Yet, management is outright refusing to discuss safety and security with us. It is a literal non-starter for them.”
Fitts also pointed out that Morton’s pediatric ED patients are especially vulnerable, despite promises Steward made years ago when it shuttered Morton’s in-patient pediatric unit.
“More than a decade ago, when Steward closed our pediatric unit, we were told that children would never co-mingle with adult patients in the ED … that there would be distinct space and staff for pediatric ED patients. That was an empty promise, and now our youngest patients languish in our ED alongside adult patients. What they witness in there is awful. The least Steward management can do is provide better safety and security for these young, vulnerable patients.”
- A Contract of Reasonable Duration. Morton management is insisting on a five-year contract agreement, which — given how quickly the landscape changes in the healthcare sector — MNA members at Morton know is an unwise and unreasonable timeframe. “Healthcare is increasingly competitive. We must be able to renegotiate sooner than five years from now,” said Cheryl Dutra, RPh and vice chairperson of the bargaining unit. “We cannot risk losing staff to other hospitals, which will gain a competitive edge over five years while we’re locked out of renegotiating contract enhancements. That would cost us valuable experienced staff.”
- Need to Negotiate Safe Staffing in the New “MORCAP” Unit. Morton’s recently opened “MORCAP unit,” a 32-Bed, level-4 substance use disorders treatment unit, is a vitally important resource for the greater Southcoast community, but “it needs to be safely and appropriately staffed if it is to succeed” said Jen Roderiques, RN and Vice-Chair of the MNA bargaining unit. “Management refuses to negotiate with us regrading the staffing of this unit … even though staffing it incorrectly will lead to its failure. We cannot afford that risk; negotiating the staffing of the MORCAP unit is essential.”
- Steward is refusing to negotiate over the effects of its recent disaffiliation from Compass Medical Group, a move that has left hundreds of staff and dependents without access to primary care physicians and specialists.
- And Steward, since the last pay period of 2021, has failed to make payments into the members’ pension plan … an issue that must be immediately, and retroactively, resolved.
The strike authorization vote does not mean the nurses and HCPs will strike immediately. It gives the Morton/MNA negotiating committee the authorization to call a three-day strike if/when they feel it is necessary. If the committee issues its official notice to strike, the hospital will then have a 10-day notification period required by law before the members go out on strike.
“With this vote yesterday, the Morton RNs and HCPs made things clear,” said Fitts. “We are taking a stand for our patients and for this community. There is no reason for the hospital to refuse to negotiate over such basic and essential improvements. Management may think they are playing hardball, but they really are not listening to the people they count on. Ultimately, management’s decisions and their approach at the bargaining table will hurt a community that was already struggling. We see through them, and the community does too. It is time for management to do the right thing and to negotiate in good faith.”