On Wednesday, Billings Clinic direct-care nurses voted to reject a proposed three-year contract offered by the administration.
While it’s hard to peer into the inner workings of something as complex as health care and health care costs, the rejection of the contract raises some questions to outsiders looking in.
At the outset, it’s important to say that the care at Billings Clinic and the professionalism of the nurses is undoubtedly top-notch. We also believe that the strength and the reputation of not only the Clinic but of other health care systems like St. Vincent is due in no small part to the quality of nurses who provide constant, front-line care.
We don’t doubt that both sides are bargaining in good faith. We hope this contract isn’t representative of an acrimonious split between the two sides, which have worked together for so long to build a great organization.
However, to those of us watching the situation, we can’t help but wonder:
Base salaries for three years will rise 4 percent the first year, 3 percent the next and 4 percent in the final year of the contract. While merit pay of zero to three percent is eliminated, by our math what amounts to a more than 11 percent increase during the span of three years seems like a deal that most of us in other lines of work would gladly take. That being said, we realize that nursing is not only demanding, but is in demand, too. A competitive labor market will certainly drive wages higher. But, this pay scale seems reasonable. Why would nurses reject it overwhelmingly?
We also understand the solidarity of the nurses who see pay differentials among nurses with a bachelor’s or associate’s degree as inappropriate. But, like in so many other industries, we struggle to understand what is wrong with paying someone with more education or training more. That happens all the time, especially in the medical field, where doctors — with more academic training — get paid more than nurses to see the same patients. We understand that many nurses with associate’s degrees do the same day-to-day functions as those with bachelor’s. But, we also agree that someone with more education should have an incentive for better and more comprehensive training.
While we also understand that no one wants to pay rising health care costs, the nurses seem to be objecting to what many in other fields already face. As it stands now, the Clinic reports that it pays nearly 90 percent of the monthly contributions for nurses. The Clinic’s contract asked for $10 more per month for employees. Again, we wonder why the objection, especially since many of us would jump at the chance to only have our rates go up by a mere $10 monthly?
One of the challenges that is raised by these sorts of contract negotiations is inherent in any union situation. Unions have served the nurses well since 1968, as nearly every contract has been approved without the specter of contentiousness. But, when things start to break down, as they appear to be doing, the intermediary nature of a union seems to complicate things. Recently, the Montana Nurses Association has filed two unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that hospital administrators have taken actions that undermine the bargaining process.
Granted, there are strict almost arcane rules about bargaining and what must — and must not — be done. However, this is illustrative of the difficulty that exists in union situations where administrators and hospital officials cannot speak directly to the employees and must do so only through the middleman of a union, especially when the union itself has a vested interest in self-preservation.
We hope the politics of the union doesn’t interfere with the day-to-day operations that make Billings a destination location for more than just shopping, dining, entertainment and retail. We are also made strong by our strong health care systems and we hope that continues with the same cooperative spirit that has existed.