University of Vermont Medical Center (UVM) nurses have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a two-day strike.
The one-sided vote comes out of deep frustration with what nurses see as the hospital administration's refusal to address their main grievances: working conditions, pay and staffing levels.
"We need more nurses, registered nurses, practical nurses and nurse practitioners," said Julie
MacMillan, lead negotiator for the nurses' union, at a news conference held Wednesday morning outside the entrance to the hospital's McClure Building on Colchester Avenue.
MacMillan said there are 152 positions that need to be filled, including more support staff. She said the strike authorization vote is intended as a wake-up call for management.
On the subject of the University of Vermont Medical Center and nurses. (Photo: Free Press file)
"We bring forth issues we feel need to be addressed and they say they're not interested," MacMillan said. "We hope this will make them interested."
UVM Medical Center President and Chief Operating Officer Eileen Whalen struck a very different tone in an interview with the Burlington Free Press on Wednesday. Whalen continues to believe a strike won't be necessary to settle contract negotiations, and said talks held immediately after the nurses' news conference went well.
"I'm very optimistic," Whalen said. "Certainly I know in the past we've had great success. If we need to call in a mediator we'll do that."
Nurses have to give the hospital 10 days notice if they intended to strike, something Whalen said had never happened at the hospital.
"We obviously have no history with this, we have no expertise," she said.
UVM Medical Center has engaged an outside firm that specializes in helping hospitals deal with strikes. Whalen said she has also been speaking to other academic medical centers that have experienced strikes.
"We're learning as we go," she said.
MacMillan told the Burlington Free Press nurses have seen a lot of investment by the hospital in properties expanding its network and in electronic health records, while nurses' wages have remained stagnant for a decade.
Background info: UVM Medical Center nurses: Higher pay, more staff central to contract negotiation
MacMillan said the hospital is having a hard time retaining nurses because of relatively low pay and difficult working conditions.
The Vermont Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals, Local 5221, which MacMillan represents, has about 1,800 members, all of whom were eligible to vote on the strike authorization.
According to results announced Wednesday morning, 94 percent of the union members who voted supported striking. Union leaders said 1,311 union members voted, with 1,227 in favor of striking.
Any strike would not begin until after July 9, when the current contract expires, officials said.
Whalen said the hospital is committed to taking the necessary steps to ensure the "highest quality of care," should there be a strike. She said it's not clear how many nurses would actually walk out for the two-day strike.
"We welcome all employees who want to come to work and will ensure their safety," Whalen said.
The union's staffing proposals — so far rejected by UVM Medical Center leadership — would address the increasing number of patients at the hospital, as well as their increasingly serious health conditions.
"The reason we're doing this is because the hospital is not hearing us," MacMillan said. "We're very worried about what's happening in our hospital."
MacMillan also expressed disappointment in Chief Nursing Officer Kate Fitzpatrick, who represents the hospital administration, and whom MacMillan said has been "absent" from the contract negotiations. At most hospitals, MacMillan said, the chief nursing officer participates in negotiations.
Whalen maintained that the hospital administration has put together a capable team of negotiators, including nurses, according to "guiding principles" agreed to by the union and the hospital.
"Kate and myself are staying very close to this, but we have empowered our leaders and bedside nurses to negotiate in good faith," Whalen said.