Nurses, EMMC fail to agree; strike, lockout likely to begin May 5

Posted April 28, 2011, at 5:48 a.m.
Last modified April 28, 2011, at 6:38 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Contract talks between administrators at Eastern Maine Medical Center and its nurses union failed to produce an agreement in time to avoid a nursing strike planned for May 5, the hospital announced early Thursday.

While it seemed progress was being made earlier Wednesday evening the two sides remained too far apart to agree on a contract, according to a statement released by the hospital at 12:53 a.m. Thursday.

“We are feeling as though the issues that are on the table are not the real issues here,” said Greg Howat, vice president of Human Resources and EMMC’s chief negotiator. “The real issues are power and control, and who is going to run Eastern Maine Medical Center. Over the course of eight months, we have moved on virtually every issue. National Nurses United is an aggressive nationally and politically focused union, and we are caught in their agenda.”

Representatives of the nurses union, which represents 830 nurses, could not be reached for comment.

The medical center informed the union that if an agreement was not reached by 11:59 pm on Wednesday, the hospital’s five-day commitment to the replacement nursing agency must be honored.

Replacement nurses are scheduled to work at EMMC May 5 through 9. That’s a significant upping of the ante from the previous walkout in November of last year, when the hospital contracted with replacement nurses for the one-day strike and additional two-day lockout. About 215 registered nurses from around the country were brought to Bangor to replace EMMC staff nurses during the work stoppage.

Nurses, represented by the Maine State Nurses Association and California-based National Nurses United, have been working without a contract since the end of September of last year. Members of the union’s negotiating team have said the hospital’s adamant refusal to include staffing language and other key issues in the new contract undermines patient safety and erodes job satisfaction.

The hospital criticized the nurses for pushing a “national agenda” set by out-of-state organizers rather than seeking solutions that reflect local realities and the changing face of health care.

Despite the war of words over staffing levels, the two sides indicated on Tuesday that language regarding the issue has been tentatively endorsed.

Attempts to reach agreement in the most recent discussions, conducted earlier this month, fell flat, ending without any resolutions or agreements.

“We believe we have a responsibility to negotiate a contract that is in the best interest of our patients, employees and the communities we serve … however negotiations concluded around 3 p.m. today with no significant developments,” EMMC community relations representative Tricia Denham said in statement released at that time.

Judy Brown, head of the nurses union at EMMC, said: “We told them we were willing to stay in talks as long as it takes. We were hopeful that we were going to get some agreements on some essential issues, but in the end, what they said is exactly what happened. We were all highly disappointed with the result of today’s talks.”

While the nurses union gave notice of a one-day strike on May 5, concurrent strikes coordinated by National Nurses United in four other hospitals across the country during the same few days has increased the cost and the competition for replacement nurses, according to the EMMC statement.

“One-day strikes are designed to be the least disruptive to the striking nurses and the most disruptive to the hospitals. We feel we need to minimize the disruption to our patients,” said Lorraine Rodgerson, RN, vice president of Patient Care Services/ chief nursing officer. “In addition, we have had to make a commitment to a five day contract in order to secure the expert nurses we need to serve our patients,” Rodgerson added.

National Nurses United represents 160,000 nurses across the United States and has demonstrated an aggressive posture and willingness to strike at hospitals all across the country. They are currently planning strikes in Boston and Worcester, Massachusetts; Minnesota, and California on May 5 and 6.

The MSNA now represents nurses at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth, Down East Community Hospital in Machias, Calais Regional Hospital, the Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle, Houlton Regional Hospital and Home Health Visiting Nurses of Southern Maine.

BDN writer Meg Haskell contributed to this report.

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