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Copley Nurses Vote to Settle Hospital Strike
Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, May 30, 1998

Times Argus Staff

   Morrisville -- A team of unionized nurses at Copley Hospital has voted to accept a modified contract offer from hospital officials, a move that will bring to an end a month-long strike and allow the nurses to return to work within the week.

   In a private meeting that stretched late into the night Friday, members of the Copley Hospital Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals voted 47 to 5 to accept the hospital’s offer, which was presented to the nurses at a negotiations session Wednesday night.

   By accepting the new proposal, the team of nurses, who walked off the job April 30, and hospital officials effectively achieved the common ground that had eluded them since contract negotiations first began nearly one year ago.

   The hospital’s proposal this week came in response to the nurses’ own counter-proposal, which was presented to Copley executives at a bargaining session on May 20.

   One day before walking onto the picket lines, the nurses had, by a near unanimous vote, rejected what then stood as the hospital’s final contract offer.

   Two subsequent bargaining sessions, both facilitated by a federal mediator, had ended quickly without indications that a compromise would be reached to end the increasingly bitter stalemate.

   Susan Lucas, a registered nurse and president of the Copley nurses union, said the hospital would be notified of the nurses' decision Friday night. Individual nurses plan to call Copley officials today to notify them of their decision to return to work.

   According to Lucas, union members largely viewed the hospital's offer as a compromise that, while not perfect, was enough of a concession to allow the impasse to be broken.

   "We openly discussed their offer and most of us felt that we could get back inside the hospital and back to our jobs," Lucas said. "It's something we can work with."

   While cautioning that nurses will continue to fight for certain issues they feel were not completely settled by the proposal, Lucas said union members felt satisfied that the hospital had reversed its hard line position with respect to several of the contract items at the center of debate.

   “The changes were significant,” Lucas said. “We feel like we will be going back in therein a position of power and strength.”

   The two factions had previously reached an agreement on a wage package that had been included in the nurses’ contract demands.

   However, key issues of staffing and scheduling continuously dogged contract negotiations for the past several months.

   The nurses had been primarily unhappy with what has become known as the “resource pool,” a hospital practice that called for nurses to treat patients in various departments throughout the hospital.

   Nurses have complained that such a practice removes them from their areas of expertise and detracts from adequate patient care.

   Under the recently accepted proposal, the hospital would maintain a balance between resource pool positions and unit-based positions, Lucas said. Copley's previous offer had called for unit-based positions that were vacated by nurses to become resource pool positions if not filled within 14 days.

   With the new proposal, the hospital would wait 21 days before filling the position, but would post the next vacated resource pool position as a unit-based position.

   Lucas said such a compromise sits well with the nurses’ union.

   'We needed to have the resource pool in check," she said. "The hospital had wanted 100 percent resource pool, but now there will be more of an effort to maintain speciality units."

    Also at the forefront of the contract stalemate had been issues of guaranteed working hours. Lucas said the hospital's final pre-strike offer did not make provisions for guaranteed hours.

   "We have so much unity now and we will continue to speak out for quality care and professional practice.
Susan Lucas, nurses' union chief

    Under that proposal, nurses could be informed on short notice that their services were not needed on a week-to-week basis.

   Under the new agreement, nurses who work in a single unit will be assured 65 percent of their total hours over a several week period. Likewise, nurses who work in more than one unit will be guaranteed 80 percent of their total hours.

   "We were looking at zero guarantee," Lucas said. "This represents a significant change."

   Other scheduling concerns covered in the accepted proposal relate to the frequency of meetings held by the Professional Practice Committee, which handles nurses' staffing issues.

   Copley officials had proposed holding quarterly meetings; the nurses wanted the committee to meet monthly. Under the new proposal, the meetings will be held six times a year.

   Lucas said nurses will begin returning to their jobs as early as Wednesday. While the majority of union members plan to resume their jobs, Lucas said a few of the nurses have chosen not to return.

   "Some of them have decided not to go back," she said. "Some felt very strongly about the 12-hour shifts, which is something we will continue to fight for.

   Nurses had wanted to work 12 hour shifts, however the accepted proposal will keep their shifts at eight hours.

   While Lucas concedes that tensions might remain between the returning nurses and Copley officials, the striking nurses who have gone for a month without paychecks or health benefits, are eager get back to the jobs they left a month ago.

   "We're pleased to be able to get back and provide the care we are trained to provide " Lucas said. "We'll be returning with tremendous pride that we made a gain for quality care. There could be tension, but we enter the workplace as professionals, and we'll deal with it like adults. We'll all just have to work through it."

   Officials from Copley could not be reached for comment.

   There is currently no date set for the contract to be officially ratified, but Lucas said she is hopeful it will go into effect within the next two weeks. The contract would be the first for the nurses since they voted to unionize in April 1997.

   "We have so much unity now and we will continue to speak out for quality care and professional practice," Lucas said.