NEW YORK NURSE: January/February 2012
Big 4 NYC hospitals win contract victories
Unity, teamwork set path for future gains for more members
by Bernie Mulligan
Contract negotiations are never easy for nurses in any workplace, especially in the world-famous Big Apple hospitals that set the tone for the rest of the industry. But an unprecedented, coordinated contract campaign in the closing minutes of 2011 brought victories and set the stage for new, united efforts in 2012 for other members fighting for contract justice.
Almost 10,000 NYSNA members are the backbone of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Mount Sinai Medical Center, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. Their contracts expired in late December 2010 and early January.
Goals worth fighting for
These professionals shared many of the same goals as they entered contract talks: affordable health care and prescription benefits for themselves and their families, appropriate staffing levels to provide quality care for patients and safe workplaces for nurses, and fair wages for nurses working in some of the wealthiest and most-profitable hospitals in the nation.
Local bargaining unit leaders, union members, and staff all knew that winning good contracts would take an unprecedented level of activity and teamwork as they faced employers intent on keeping their costs down.
When members ratified the four contracts in December and January, it was testimony to the success of the tactics the teams used, and that the bargaining teams met their members’ goals on key issues.
Mobilization and teamwork
Several steps were key to the members’ victories:
- Mobilized members – Members were informed, mobilized, and engaged in the process of pressuring hospital management and aiding their teams at the table. Many of the locals held big informational picket lines with hundreds of members and supporters. At some hospitals, fliers were given to community members explaining why the nurses were picketing. As negotiations intensified, new creative approaches included workplace leaders developing text-message lists to keep large groups of members simultaneously updated on actions and bargaining.
- Unprecedented teamwork – Communication between local bargaining units was encouraged and flourished. Instead of relying on second-hand information, leaders of bargaining teams were constantly in touch with each other, discussing the relative merits and flaws of proposals that management was trying to coordinate at the various bargaining sessions. This new level of cooperation ensured that each team could function with the best information to benefit its members.
- New coordination – High levels of staff and leader coordination were encouraged and productive. Two of the union’s top staff leaders – Nancy Kaleda, Economic and General Welfare Program director, and Julie Pinkham, interim executive director – were in constant contact with the teams and staff assigned to each crucial contract, as well as with researchers assisting with negotiations. This hands-on approach assured coordination of our advocacy at the table and outside of bargaining.
- Public outreach – NYSNA helped tell the nurses’ stories to the public through paid and free media. Union leaders and staff collaborated to ensure the highest possible level of media coverage and public attention was given to the nurses’ efforts. Among the paid media, three ads appeared in The New York Times advocating for the nurses at critical stages in bargaining. A 60-second radio advertisement – featuring the voice of a rank-and-file Montefiore nurse – received wide coverage when it ran on several major New York City stations. Three bus shelters (where nurses and residents congregate every day) outside Montefiore carried the local's message that those nurses were standing up against the “One-Percenters” to win what the nurses, their patients and their families need.
The high level of member activity and interest in a possible nurses’ strike provoked a high level of media coverage, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and most NYC-area radio and television stations. Nurse leaders were given the chance to tell their members’ stories to members of the press, and those efforts put more pressure on the employers to settle.
- Member unity – Nurses used the threat of a strike judiciously in bargaining as a way to stress the urgency of the members’ needs to the management they faced across the table. Members in each hospital overwhelmingly approved a strike vote, and when talks stalled at Montefiore and St. Luke’s-Roosevelt, both teams delivered strike notices to management, creating a new focus and urgency for managers to settle the talks.
The next battles
These major campaigns for good contracts sets the stage for NYSNA’s next big fight – winning quality agreements for NYSNA members who work in public-sector hospitals.
These members face the pain and struggle of public hospital underfunding every day, as they work in understaffed and overcrowded conditions, treating many New Yorkers with limited health care options and high rates of poverty.
Public-sector locals facing intense bargaining dot the map of the Empire State, from Manhattan to Massena. They include:
- The 8,800 nurses of New York City’s Health and Hospitals Corporation and several city agencies, whose contract expired Jan. 20, 2010.
- The 1,500 nurses at the Westchester Medical Center, whose contract expired March 31, 2011, and who are also fighting layoffs.
- The 80 nurses at Massena Memorial, a municipal hospital near the Canadian Border, whose contract expired Dec. 31, 2011.
Using the lessons learned in the 2011 contract fights and every political outlet available to public employees, these NYSNA members are gearing up to make some history of their own in the coming year.