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Nurses' Strike Affects State
Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, May 31, 1998

Staff Writer

   MORRISVILLE - With the strike at Copley Hospital settled and unionized nurses here claiming victory, nurses at other hospitals could be emboldened to form their own unions, observers say.

   But while nurses at large medical centers may benefit from the flexing of their counterparts' labor muscle, small hospitals that serve many Vermonters could be forced to cut services if unions prevail there, a hospital official said.

    Members of the Copley Hospital Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals voted 47 to 5 late Friday to accept the hospital's latest offer, which included concessions on many of the points nurses were pressing when they walked off the job April 30.

"This is not about a single hospital or Copley, this is about the larger issue of patient care in the state of Vermont. "

Matt McDonald,
Union organizer

    The 74 members of the hospital's Local 5109 who chose to strike had already won higher pay, but held out against the hospital's insistence that they work in areas other than their specialty and resistance to guaranteed amounts of work each week.

    A compromise was struck that will allow the hospital to replace some specialized positions with cross-trained ones, and guarantee more hours per week to nurses who agree to work in more than one area.

   The nurses will begin returning to work this week, but the impact of the strike could be felt much further into the future, according to Michael Gurdon, a professor in the school of business administration at the University of Vermont.

   That's because the success of unionization drives tends to increase with the size of the hospital, he said.

    "The fact that this has occurred in a relatively small institution in Morrisville suggests that the prospects are very good for the nurses' unionization efforts at say, Fletcher Allen," Gurdon said, referring to a current union drive at the state's largest hospital, in Burlington.

    Gurdon felt Copley's nurses did a good job of convincing the public that they were fighting for patients' care, rather than for higher pay for themselves, which he said has been a challenge for professionals trying to form unions.

    "They were able to say what we're all about is a concern about the care patients are getting at the bedside," be said. "And what management is trying to do here ... was lowering the level of patient care."

    "It's important to make that linkage, and I think that's what a lot of other locals will try to do," Gurdon said. "What they were saying is they're not really looking for higher wages, they're looking for better care ... and if nurses in other professions are able to key into that, it's going to make hospital administrators' lives very difficult."

    That could include management at both Fletcher Allen Health Care and Rutland Regional Medical Center, where union drives are underway. A union vote at Rutland is set for Wednesday.

    Matt McDonald, an organizer with the Federation of Nurses and Health Care Professionals who is currently working to unionize nurses at Fletcher Allen, said he was "pleased" with the success of the Copley nurses, which he said has buoyed organizers.

    "There's a thousand nurses at Fletcher Allen, and they as a group have a lot of power to negotiate some of the bigger issues," he said. "Where a smaller hospital will say (to nurses), 'We don't have control over the industry, we have to keep up,' with Fletcher Allen we have the premier institution in the state.

    "And that's why it's important," McDonald said. "This is not about a single hospital or Copley, this is about the larger issue of patient care in the state of Vermont."

    Norman Wright, president of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, agreed with McDonald's assessment but said the strike's impact could be devastating to other small hospitals similar to the 53-bed hospital in Morrisville.

    "My perspective here is that this strike was bigger than Copley, that right from Day One when they were able to settle the so-called financial issues ... this was a strike where the unions were sending a message," he said.

    "And that message didn't really have an awful lot to do with Copley and had an awful lot to do with power," Wright added.

    His trade group represents virtually all the hospitals in Vermont except Rutland, but he said his concerns aren't for the large hospitals like Rutland Regional or Fletcher Allen but for small ones where small numbers of patients require fewer nurses.

    If unions succeed there and force the small hospitals into guaranteed hours and rigid specialization of nurses, Wright said, they won't be able to afford to offer all the services they do now.

    While emergency room care wouldn't be affected, he said, services like birthing, cardiac care, and other specialized care might have to be cut.

    "I don't think there's any question, particularly in the 12 rural institutions, this in some sense threatens their very being ... over time, their ability to continue to survive," Wright said.

    Copley's vice president for planning, marketing, and development, Kim Disney, said the hospital is "delighted that the nurses were able to modify their needs and we look forward to working together to continue to provide the highest quality care for our patients."

    "It's a win for our patients and we're looking forward to have our nurses return to work." she added.

    Disney said it would take time to sort out exactly what the strike's ramifications for other hospitals would be.

    "I know that there are lessons to be learned," she said, "And I'm eager to spend time with our entire staff, nursing and the 200-plus people who have been coming to work, meeting and asking, 'What have we learned? What can we do to make sure that this doesn't occur again?' ... Clearly, communication is the key."

    "I think this will prove to be a great learning experience," Disney added. I would hope that in some ways we may be able to serve as a resource to other areas that find themselves in similar difficulties."

    Susan Lucas, president of the Copley nurses' union, said she hoped the strike would serve to inspire other nurses to organize and speak out for better care for their patients.

    "I can only hope that nurses at other hospitals that are looking at organizing would see that a group of 70 nurses in Morrisville were able to stand together and make our voices and our issues heard," she said.

    Lucas said Copley's nurses were always concerned about patient care, and speculated that nurses around the state, like those at Copley, have been privately raising such issues on their own for years.

    "I think when you do it as an individual it's very easy (for management) to ignore you," she said. "And in some cases people who have spoken out were quietly threatened, and they either put up with it or they got out."

    "For us, we decided that those weren't choices we wanted to make," Lucas said. "We didn't want to compromise quality care, and we didn't want to leave, because this is our community hospital."