Billings Clinic nurses' union recommends against contract ratification

2014-08-10T23:00:00Z 2014-08-14T06:40:04Z Billings Clinic nurses' union recommends against contract ratificationBy CINDY UKEN cuken@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

As nurses at Billings Clinic prepare to vote on a new, three-year contract, it does not carry the endorsement of the nurses union.

In fact, the Montana Nurses Association, the professional association for registered nurses in Montana, said it is “with regret that we do not recommend this contract,” as it does not reflect the direction nurses provided the bargaining team.

The vote will be held in a mobile “union hall” starting at 6 a.m. Tuesday through 8 a.m. Wednesday. The mobile unit will be parked near the clinic, as hospital officials have refused to allow the nurses to hold their ratification vote on the Billings Clinic campus.

“We have an excellent offer on the table with an economic package that includes benefits and pay raises that keep our nurses ahead of market,” said Julie Burton, director of communications for Billings Clinic. “We hope our proposal will be judged on its merits and that our nurses will vote to ratify the offer.”

Burton said Billings Clinic continues to be a national leader in nursing excellence and is committed to providing an environment that exceeds the professional needs of its nurses.

“Billings Clinic is extremely proud of the care provided by our nurses,” she said.

This marks the first time since nurses organized in 1968 that the union is not recommending ratification of the proposed contact, said Amy Hauschild, a labor representative for the MNA. She described it as “unusual” because negotiations have usually ended in a “celebratory” fashion.

The MNA unit at Billings Clinic, which currently represents 575 nurses, was the first to organize in the state and has never gone on strike.

The direct-care hospital nurses affected by the contract are currently working under a contract that was negotiated in 2012 and expired June 30. That contract was negotiated in a week. This time, negotiations have spanned 97 hours over a four-month period with no agreement the team is comfortable recommending to the nurses. The last negotiation session was held Aug. 4.

“I’m disappointed but certainly not angry,” Hauschild said. “It seems like the hospital came to the table ready to play hardball.”

So, what’s changed in two years?

Nurses have become more active in the administration of their union and insist that the terms and conditions of their contract are upheld at all times, Hauschild said.

“There was probably a day when the nurses succumbed to the wants and desires of the hospital much more easily than they do now,” Hauschild said. “These are sophisticated nurses who realize they truly are partners with the hospital, and these things need to be negotiated.”

If nurses reject the proposed contract, Hauschild said the goal is to return to the bargaining table, negotiate in good faith and reach an agreement upon which everyone can agree.

Points of contention in the proposed contract include:

An increase in the base salary. The Clinic is proposing a 4 percent pay raise in the first year of the contract, a 3 percent raise in the second year, and a 4 percent pay raise in the third year.

Elimination of merit pay, which usually ranges from nothing to 3 percent.

Creation of a separate pay scale for nurses based on whether they have a bachelor’s degree or associate degree.

An increase in health insurance premiums

Elimination of an extended leave program, replacing it with a short-term disability plan that would pay employees at 60 percent of salary.

Delayne Gall, president of Billings Clinic Local Unit 2, takes particular issue with the proposed creation of a pay differential for nurses.

“We believe in equal pay for equal work,” Gall said. “We all pass the same nursing boards and have the same job description. And such a system would only exacerbate our current short staffing and make it more difficult to get the nurses we need to end extra shifts and the hiring of travelers — temporary nurses.”

During the negotiation process, the MNA filed two unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that hospital administrators have taken actions that undermine the two sides’ ability to reach an agreement through the bargaining process.

One complaint alleges that hospital officials attempted to prohibit MNA representatives from entering the facility to meet and confer with nurses. The second alleges that hospital officials intentionally disseminated misleading information at meetings with bargaining unit members and attempted to bargain directly with the nurses.

“The National Labor Relations Act has rules about how bargaining may be done,” Hauschild said. “It’s at the bargaining table — not in some meeting where the employer attempts to bargain directly with the nurses.”

The complaints are under investigation to determine whether formal action should be taken.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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