Cooley Dickinson prepares for strike by nurses; labor leader issues denial

Dan Crowley, Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 1, 2011

Northampton - Fearing a nurses strike, Cooley Dickinson Hospital has lined up a national health-care specialist firm which is ready to bring in a team of nurses should a work stoppage occur, although union members say the move is a scare tactic designed to win over nurses at the bargaining table. In a detailed memo sent to all hospital staff Tuesday, President and CEO Craig Melin said the hospital believes the Massachusetts Nurses Association is considering asking Cooley Dickinson's registered nurses to vote to authorize a strike. Hospital officials say there are other indications of a potential work stoppage.

The MNA had scheduled an open meeting for its membership in Northampton Wednesday afternoon, though a union spokesman said the purpose of that session was not to call for a strike.

"We have photos of a sign and have seen flyers reading 'strike' that were and may still be posted to MNA bulletin boards in several areas," said Dianne M. Cutillo, senior director of public affairs at CDH in an email statement to the Gazette.

"The MNA circulated flyers regarding the date and time of the open meeting. Multiple sources reported they were either told directly or indirectly that the purpose or intent of the open meeting was for the union's negotiators to seek authorization to 'threaten management with a strike," according to Cutillo.

In addition, hospital officials said it was reported as early as March to Secretary of Labor Joanne Goldstein that Cooley Dickinson Hospital was one of four Massachusetts hospitals targeted by the MNA for a coordinated strike.

The hospital and nurses have been engaged in contract negotiations for 15 months, and the talks have become contentious as a February deadline is fast approaching. The hospital is slated to merge next year with a larger health care organization that is expected to be either Baystate Medical Center in Springfield or Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Earlier this year, the hospital's nurses picketed with information and more recently an independent federal mediator was brought in to try to bring the two sides together.

"Not knowing what's going to happen, we have no choice but to make preparations in the event there is a strike," Melin wrote in his memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Gazette. "Therefore, we have prepared and are ready to implement a strike contingency plan."

Contacted Wednesday, Charles Rasmussen, a spokesman for the MNA unit representing 235 nurses at CDH, said that while a strike is a tool for the association to use, it has not moved in that direction.

"We have not called for a strike authorization vote," Rasmussen said. "Anything that will be done will be done by the members."

Rasmussen said the MNA wants to negotiate an equitable settlement and remains "committed to working towards a solution at the table."

One registered nurse at the hospital said the memo has caused confusion among employees as there has been no talk of a strike by nurses.

"The only mention of strike that anybody has heard has come from other departments, not nursing departments," said Damien Schwartz, an admissions nurse at CDH. "I think this is just fear-mongering on the part of management. It seems like it's an attempt to drive a wedge between nurses and all other departments at the hospital."

The hospital and nurses are at an impasse on several issues related to their labor contracts, including defined benefit or retirement plans, fixed staffing levels, contract successor language when a larger health-care organization takes over, and a proposed earned time-off system that has irked some at the bargaining table.

In his memo, Melin stated that after 15 months of negotiations, management has almost no flexibility on the matters being discussed. He cautioned staff that a strike would hurt everyone involved, including patients, the hospital and the strikers themselves.

"What we find so frustrating is that a strike really won't accomplish anything positive for our RNs," Melin wrote. "As you know, responding to the combined pressure of the state, the economy and the insurers and patients who provide our revenues, the hospital has already reduced its prices to make care more affordable to prevent the loss of patients to other institutions."

He stressed that temporary replacement registered nurses can only be deployed for a minimum of five days, which translates into strikers losing a week's pay.
Union members would not be allowed to work during a strike "even if they want to," Melin wrote.

The memo outlines the many ways in which management has tried to reach agreement with the hospital's registered nurses against the backdrop of having to reduce costs and eliminate outdated and unaffordable benefit plans and practices, as Melin put it.

Given that context, Melin said, the hospital must take precautions, including honoring its obligation to care for patients.

"It would be irresponsible to our patients and staff for us to stand idly by and let a strike compromise patient care and our ability to serve our community," Melin wrote. "Nor can we allow non-striking employees to be hurt financially or risk our hospital's reputation for superior care."

Dan Crowley can be reached at

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