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Rutland Hospital Nurses OK Union
Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, June 4, 1998

Staff Writer

   Registered nurses at Rutland Regional Medical Center voted narrowly Wednesday to join a labor union, capping a painful year of cost-cutting at the state's second largest hospital.

   The vote was 159-15 1.

   "It's a small margin, but we prevailed," said Virginia Levesque an organizer with the Office and Professional Employees International Union.

   A total of 310 of the hospital's 340 full- and part-time, assigned and on-call nurses cast ballots on whether to join the union, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

   The vote, run by the nonpartisan National Labor Relations Board, cast a tense silence over the hospital's 1,000 employees Wednesday morning and afternoon.

   The labor board banned the press from polls at the hospital until after the vote, at which time most nurses were home awaiting the results by phone.

   Announcement of the count around 7:30 p.m. brought cries of glee from union organizers and little comment from hospital leaders.

   "We will continue to work with all our employees in providing the very best care to our patients and our community," hospital President Thomas Huebner said in a written statement. "Patient care and quality will always come first."

   Privately, hospital workers feared it would be difficult to bring the two sides together considering the closeness and divisiveness of the vote.

   Organizing efforts began a year ago as the hospital started to cut its $65 million annual budget to appease insurers and health maintenance organizations that have threatened to send patients to lower-priced facilities.

   The hospital since has cut $6.4 million through such measures as eliminating more than 40 jobs, freezing wages until fall, slowing the accruement of vacation and sick time, and requiring employees to pay part of their health insurance.

"It's a small margin, but we prevailed"

Virginia Levesque,
union organizer

   Organizers said Wednesday they would try to negotiate a nurses contract that would restore compensation and patient loads to past levels.

   "The nurses will have an active voice at the negotiating table," Levesque said. "We're ready to move forward. We just hope management accepts the decision."

   Hospital leaders limited their comments to a half-page written statement.

   "We are working hard to ensure that we have a healthcare organization with open communication," Huebner wrote. "We value the opinions of our staff. Working together we will provide terrific care for our community."

   The vote was open to registered nurses at the hospital and its parent company's Rutland Region Physician Group and Vermont Orthopedic Clinic.

   It came less than a week after the end of what is believed to be the first nursing strike ever in Vermont.

   Registered nurses at Copley Hospital in Morrisville walked out April 30 to protest working conditions and pay They approved a contract Friday after a month of picketing.

   Copley nurses are affiliated with the Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, the same union trying to organize nurses at the state's largest hospital, Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.

   "Go Fletcher Allen - union yes," Levesque said Wednesday night. But she added Rutland's unionizing efforts wouldn't necessarily lead to a strike like at Copley, where nurses voted to organize a year ago.

   "The issues were different," Levesque said before moving to a hospital pay phone to call supportive nurses.