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Copley Talks Lead Nowhere
Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, May 21, 1998

Times Argus Staff

- Negotiations between nurses and officials at Copley Hospital broke down again Wednesday.

   It was the second time in a week that a federal mediator was unable to find common ground for the two factions, whose increasingly bitter impasse has sparked concern across the state and garnered media attention throughout New England.

   "It's frustrating because we came to the table this time prepared to negotiate and again we came away with nothing," said Sue Lucas, a registered nurse and president of the Copley Hospital Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

   "There was no progress whatsoever," she said.

   Lucas said the session at the Plaza Hotel began at 11 a.m. and ended shortly after 2 p.m. Talks will resume next Wednesday when the two sides are again scheduled to meet with the federal mediator.

   Seventy nurses walked off the job April 30 to protest hospital scheduling and staffing practices they say are unfair to nurses and threaten the wellbeing of patients. The two sides have been unable to reach agreement on a contract since the nurses voted to unionize in April 1997.

   The nurses' union held a membership meeting Tuesday night and drew up proposals to counter nine items on the hospital's proposed contract, which was presented to the union as a final offer one day before the walk-out occurred.

   According to Lucas, hospital administrators were unable to immediately respond to the nurses' proposals.

   "We were told that they were not prepared to look at nine items all at once," Lucas said. "Hopefully by next week they will have had more time to consider."

   Statewide focus on the Copley stalemate was heightened this week when Gov. Howard Dean, in a press conference, called on both sides to bring a hasty end to the strike, which he labeled as detrimental to the hospital as well as the community.

   While Lucas said Dean's request did not affect the tone of Wednesday's talks, she conceded that some nurses have began to voice concern over job security in the event that Copley decides to find permanent replacements.

   'We have been aware of that possibility, but we're trying not to think about that," she said. "We're on strike because we care about the hospital, and if the hospital does take that tactic, these issues will still be there."

   Copley has been running classified ads for nursing positions since the strike began, and Toni Kaeding, a hospital spokeswoman, said that a prolonged strike could eventually lead the administration to hire permanent replacements.

   In recent days, the impasse has taken on a decidedlv bitter tone with both sides ratcheting up the intensity of a finger-pointing campaign.

   While the nurses have castigated temporary replacements as sloppy and underqualified, hospital officials have accused the nurses of spreading lies and have made vague references to tires being slashed in the Copley parking lot.

   Following yesterday's talks, Lucas was asked if the proliferation of such tactics runs the risk of irreparable darnage between the two factions, even if a contract resolution is reached.

   "Sure it does," she said. "You start to think, 'Do I really want to go back? Do I really want to put up with this?' But this is our hospital and this is our community, and if we do end up back on the job we still intend to keep fighting for things."

   Some of the 70 striking have already begun to work part time at other hospitals, and at a local nursing home, in an effort to earn some extra income. Nurses' health benefits have also been revoked by the hospital.

   Should the nurses ultimately return to Copley, Lucas said, wounds caused by the strike will have to be mended over time.

   "Trust will have to be rebuilt," she said. "In the interest of patient care, I think most of the nurses will 90 ck and do the best; but it's going to have to come from both sides."

   In the meantime, Lucas said she is hopeful that the nurses union will be in a position to accept the counter offers she expects Copley officials to bring to next week's negotiations.

   "If we're lucky, we'll be able to live with the counter proposals they bring us," she said. "And hopefully we can get back to work soon."