NYSNA members at Vassar Brothers Medical Center (VBMC) in Poughkeepsie started the New Year with a new contract and a good deal to celebrate. The 750 nurses brought more than ten months of negotiations to a close late on December 14, and on December 22 ratified the agreement with an overwhelming majority.
VBMC nurses had been working without a contract since their last agreement expired April 30, 2015.
Rosemarie Decker, RN and LBU President, said this round of negotiations was different than those in the past. “We had never used contract captains before. The captains did a great job of both keeping all the nurses informed and mobilizing the troops when needed. Plus, we faced a new management team that had no experience with a unionized hospital.”
Down to the wire
Cyndi Sexton, RN and Negotiating Committee Member, attributed the timing of the settlement to the informational picket the nurses had scheduled for December 16. “We started the session on December 14 knowing that if we couldn’t bring the contract to resolution at this time, we would take our message to the community. Management knew it, too. We negotiated late into the night and finally got to where we wanted to be.”
Vassar members ranked safe staffing as their number one bargaining priority. The hospital’s census had been rising steadily over the past year, but staffing had not kept up. “Management kept thinking the increase was a fluke and would eventually drop. A year later, it’s still high. We finally convinced them of the need to add staff,” Ms. Decker said. She added, “Thus far the hospital appears to be making good on its promises for hiring additional staff.”
While the prior contract included provisions for ratios, the new agreement includes strong enforcement mechanisms. Ms. Sexton said she is particularly pleased that they achieved a Committee on Nurse Practice. “It gives us a direct line to the nursing director that we didn’t have before and will allow RNs from every unit to meet on paid time to work to improve the standards of practice.”
For the first time, VBMC nurses will have the right to picket and take their staffing concerns direct to the community if unable to resolve disputes through labor-management channels. “This is a huge win for the nurses. It’s really powerful to be able to go to the community and express our concerns about safety,” said Ms. Decker.
Finding a better work-life balance was another key contract priority. Ms. Decker explained: “Because of scheduling and staffing shortages in recent years, many nurses were able to take only one week of vacation each year, no matter how many they had earned.” The nurses are very pleased with the new provision that will enable every nurse to take her/his full vacation allotment in the year it is accrued.
Vassar members won big in economic areas, as well. For months, the hospital’s negotiators insisted on 2% annual across the board increases and wouldn’t budge. “We had already held out long enough and were determined that we weren’t going to settle for 2%,” said Ms. Decker. “We won 3% annual increases in all four years. Plus, we won increases in Charge/Preceptor and on-call pay differentials.”
Finally, NYSNA won language that will help non-union nurses gain a voice for themselves and their patients in a non-adversarial environment, should they choose to do so.