Baystate nurses win

February 11, 2014

The nurses' ability to cultivate community support gave them real leverage in their struggle for a contract against an intransigent management, writes Wayne Standley.

NURSES AT Franklin Medical Center won a clear victory with a tentative agreement achieved late on February 7. Facing an unfair labor practices strike and growing organized support for it in the community, management at Baystate Health Systems was forced to return to negotiations with the registered nurses (RNs), who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA).

The contract, if nurses vote on February 13 to ratify it, covers five years, but because it's retroactive to when their last contract expired more than two years ago, it expires in December 2016.

Not only were the nurses able to beat back any major concessions that Baystate had consistently demanded, they also won several important gains:

-- Baystate withdrew its proposal to eliminate daily overtime. That demand to pay overtime only after 40 hours worked in a given week instead of eight hours on a given day had been the key sticking point in the negotiations. The new contract will maintain the nurses' current benefit, with the addition of a one-hour grace period for daily overtime.

This means that the first hour after the end of a nurse's shift will be paid at straight time; but if their shift lasts any longer, all overtime (including that first hour) will be paid at time and a half. In all cases, nurses have the right to refuse to work overtime if they feel this would jeopardize the care of their patients.

Baystate has also agreed to clear language in the contract obligating the hospital to comply with Massachusetts state law banning mandatory overtime. The hospital had previously refused to provide any language in the contract that would guarantee adherence to the law. This prohibits hospitals from using the dangerous practice of mandatory overtime as an alternative to providing safe staffing and guarantees that nurses cannot be required to work beyond their scheduled shift.

Baystate will increase its share of the family health insurance premium from the current 70 percent to 75 percent. Plus, for the first time, they will provide insurance coverage for HIV if contracted during the course of work.

Baystate agreed to wage increases significantly better than its "last final offer"--plus signing bonuses and an improved extension of step raises after 12 years.

Image from
(Massachusetts Nurses Association)

The impact of the nurses' victory at Franklin Medical Center was felt almost immediately at the other end of the state where registered nurses at Beverly Hospital are in contract negotiations with Northeast Hospital Corporation. When news of the agreement at FMC reached them, Northeast removed a similar policy for weekly overtime from its demands.

THE FIRST lesson in every union-busting playbook is to prolong the negotiation process as long as possible. After 28 months of Baystate's expensive corporate strategy of stalling and intimidation, Donna Stern, a registered nurse and co-chair of the local MNA negotiating committee, explained how the nurses held it all together:

The number one rule in organizing is you have to know your membership, you have reps in every unit, and you have to have one-to-one conversations over and over and over again. This is the difference between a business-union model and a rank-and-file union. Linda Judd [an RN and the other local MNA co-chair] and I did a real grassroots organization drive to educate the membership.

If one of the departments started to lose steam or feel demoralized, we knew about it and we were on it. We'd start to do walk-throughs again, face-to-face meetings. We made ourselves available all the time. I told people, "This is my personal cell phone number. You elected me to be a leader. So you can call me anytime." Our job is to remain cool and say what the hospital is doing is illegal, we're going to prove this is illegal, we are going to get through this, and we're going to win.

One of the keys to success was to also organize the community around the nurses. After the first one-day strike in October 2012, "some nurses did become demoralized that we didn't get what we wanted then," said Stern. "What empowered us then was doing a community forum. Making our struggle part of a community-wide fight for quality local health care."

The nurses showed that what they were fighting for in their contract was inextricably intertwined with standing for quality care for their patients.

In the words of Stern:

What makes this campaign so important--and it's a lesson that unions as a whole need to learn if they are going to regain any traction--is that you have to go beyond the needs of your members. Yes, you have to take care of the needs of new members; that's the power a union.

But you have to go beyond your members and think about the community that you live in, and you have to use it to help empower your community too. And we will continue to work with our allies in the community to ensure patients have access to the full range of services they need right here in Franklin County.

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