Mass. Labor Relations Board Completes Hearing on Unfair Labor Practice Charge Against Cambridge Hospital
Violation of Nurses’ Union Rights Cited, Ruling Expected on Aug. 18th
MNA Argued CHA Management Prematurely Cut Off Negotiations with Nurses after Just Five Sessions, Broke State Labor Law By Declaring Impasse & Imposing Last Offer and Slashed Nurses’ Retiree Health Benefit Without Exhausting Longstanding Requirement for Mediation
CHA Argued that Employers Can Skip Mediation and Fact-Finding and Simply Change Working Conditions if They Believe the Negotiations are At an Impasse, A Position that Could Severely Undermine the Bargaining Rights of Public Employees
CAMBRIDGE, MA – The Commonwealth Employment Relations Board (CERB) held a hearing this week on a formal complaint it had issued against Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) in July, citing the organization for bargaining in bad faith and depriving nurses of their union rights following CHA’s decision to prematurely cease negotiations, declare impasse and unilaterally slash nurses’ retiree health benefit. The outcome of the case, which could be known as soon as Aug. 18, is drawing close scrutiny from the labor community in Massachusetts as the SLRC’s ruling on the role of mediation and fact-finding as a guaranteed right under public sector law could have implications for thousands of public sector employees across the Commonwealth.
The registered nurses of the Cambridge Hospital campus of CHA, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), had filed an unfair labor practice charge with the CERB against the hospital on July 1, 2010 for its refusal to engage in good faith negotiations with the nurses in their effort to reach agreement on a new union contract. A preliminary hearing before the CERB was held on July 8. The CERB issued a complaint against CHA on July 12, 2010.
On August 11, 2010, the MNA’s attorney argued that this was a simple case involving a blatant violation of nurses’ rights, as the Cambridge Health Alliance declared an impasse after only five sessions and without first participating in the legally required process of mediation and fact finding. Subsequent to the decision, the hospital implemented a 40 percent cut to the nurses retiree health benefit and forced the nurses to put in papers for retirement by July 31, 2010, if they wanted to retire with the current benefit. In response, the MNA argued for an expedited decision by the Commission to prevent implementation of the CHA retirement cuts, as nurses would suffer harm by being forced to retire early.
The hospital took the unprecedented position that public employers can choose to skip mediation and fact finding and instead self-declare impasse and then make changes in working conditions even though according to CERBs’ own publication, the law forbids employers from unilaterally changing working conditions until the collective bargaining process – including mediation and fact-finding– has been completed. The MNA is aware of no other public sector employer in the state’s history that has proceeded in the manner that CHA has done in this case.
The MNA, along with other members of the labor community, will be awaiting the CERB decision on the case with concern, as the implications are far reaching for thousands of employees covered by contracts in the public sector. If the hospital’s ludicrous argument was accepted, then all public sector employees, who are precluded from striking, would face changed working conditions without any recourse, undermining the entire statute set up to balance the rights of public sector employees with the right of the public sector employers to be free from labor strikes. Now there is a statutory deal in place that makes it illegal for public sector employees to strike, but in return public sector employers cannot unilaterally implement contract terms until the collective bargaining process has been fully complied with.
“If the CHA attorney’s argument was accepted, it would mean that any employer could unilaterally declare impasse at any time, dramatically weakening public sector employees’ ability to negotiate equitable agreements,” said Julie Pinkham, RN, executive director of the MNA, who attended the hearing. “This would then force employees to engage in strikes to protect their rights, as it would be their only option. We sincerely hope and expect the Board to follow years of precedent and to support the intent of the law, which is to foster an equitable system to maintain fairness for all.”
Massachusetts AFL-CIO President, Robert Haynes echoed the concerns of the MNA, stating, “If the Board accepts this employer’s outlandish argument and removes mediation as a guaranteed right to public sector workers, then there will be no meaningful recourse for dispute resolution to protect working people in the public sector and the Board would be blatantly ignoring the letter of the law they are sworn to uphold and enforce.”
At the close of the hearing, the CERB requested both the MNA and the CHA to provide legal briefs on the issue of whether the use of the mediation and fact finding processes enumerated in §9 of the Massachusetts General Law 150E is required before a public employer can change working conditions and if so whether there are any exceptions that would allow employers to impose economic terms on public sector employees prior to an agreement on a new contract.
“All the nurses at Cambridge Hospital are looking for is justice,” said Betty Kaloustian, a nurse at the hospital and chair of the nurse’ local bargaining unit. “I’m not a lawyer, but I can read, and the law seems pretty black and white in this case. They had an obligation to negotiate with us and they chose not to. For us, this is more than a legal matter, it is about our retirement security and it’s about treating people with dignity and respect.”
The MNA represents more than 395 nurses at Cambridge Hospital. Donna Mondeau, a long time nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the bargaining unit, believes the retiree health benefit was a promise made to the nurses, many of whom have worked for years at the public sector facility, forgoing higher wages they could have made at nearby private sector hospitals. They stayed on at Cambridge in large part due to the retiree health and pension benefit.