UPMC’s first nurse contract coming up

It was a simple thing, but telling, according to Paula Stellabotte, a registered nurse at UPMC Altoona and president of her local SEIU Healthcare-PA unit.

Stellabotte was in the office of new human resources director Michelle Speck, the first new executive that UPMC has sent to the former Altoona Regional Health System, which the Pittsburgh health care giant acquired in July.

There’s only one door to her office, which is a concern, given the potentially volatile situations that human resources departments can deal with, Speck observed.

“She gets it,” said Stellabotte at a recent meeting with a Mirror reporter to discuss the union’s upcoming first contract negotiations with UPMC. The group’s current deal expires at the end of the year. “She’s all on board for safety.”

That concern with the safety of employees matches the union’s concern – just as UPMC’s concern with the safety of patients, as expressed in its advertisements, mission statement and “core values,” matches that of the union, according to Stellabotte and three other union officers who requested to meet with the Mirror.

In its one-sentence mission statement, the organization begins with a declaration that it intends to “serve our community by providing outstanding patient care.”

In its first “vision” statement, the organization talks about “putting our patients at the center of everything we do.”

The commonality of interests, Speck’s receptivity to unionists’ views and the respect she has accorded them has Stellabotte optimistic about negotiations, even though UPMC is generally a non-union organization, and Altoona will be the first nearly “wall-to-wall” union hospital in its system, she said.

Two-thirds of the hospital’s 2,400 employees are unionized, although unionists make up less than half of the overall Altoona system’s 4,000 employees, according to hospital spokesman Dave Cuzzolina.

“[UPMC] said it’s going to work with the union,” Stellabotte said. “We’re taking them at their word.”

It helps that Speck seems to believe management-union relations ought to remain collaborative rather than adversarial, said union Vice President Kim Heverly.

Management didn’t have much to say about the task ahead.

“UPMC Altoona will begin our collective bargaining negotiations with SEIU next week,” Speck wrote in an email. “We look forward to an anticipated successful conclusion.”

The conciliatory attitude of the union, as negotiations approach, contrasts with its combative attempt earlier this year to slow Altoona Regional’s push to merge with UPMC.

In May, the union warned of alleged potential problems if UPMC took over, including access limitations for Highmark subscribers, high charges and high profits, problematic treatment of physicians, the closing of local hospitals and Pittsburgh’s challenge to UPMC’s tax-exempt status.

“In light of these concerns, we urge the board to slow down and stop exclusive talks with UPMC,” a union petition at the time stated.

Union members haven’t changed their minds about those things, Stellabotte said.

But they’re unlikely to become part of contract negotiations, she said.

Before the merger, the union was trying to educate the community and to ensure that Altoona Regional management was fully aware of all the issues, she said.

The chief one – access for Highmark subscribers to the local hospital – has still not been confirmed in writing by UPMC, she said – although UPMC has assured the community that it intends to carve out Altoona and other sole community providers as exceptions to its overall plan not to provide access for Highmark subscribers after the UPMC-Highmark contract expires at the end of 2014. Such an assurance is in an FAQ on the merger on the UPMC Altoona website.

Since the merger, UPMC has made no attempt to punish the union for the premerger opposition, she said.

She professed not to be surprised at the good relations that have prevailed.

“But it’s early,” she said. “And we’re trying to stay alert.”

In negotiating a new contract, SEIU hopes to ensure safe staffing ratios, solidify the role of committees that generate ideas for improving care, fortify a training and education program and keep the status quo on retirement benefits.

The first sit down will be Wednesday.

The union plans to invite all rank-and-file nurses to attend negotiations, Stellabotte said.

“Transparency is important to the members,” Heverly said. “We don’t want to hide anything.”

The leaders will especially encourage their members to attend sessions related to their specific units.

Stellabotte doesn’t anticipate problems in negotiations.

“We should all be on the same page,” she said. “We all have the same goals.”

Last spring, Kozak spoke with a unionized UPMC McKeesport registered nurse, who said, “You’ll be fine.”

“Check in at the end of November,” Stellabotte said.