Strike might be first one for UPMC

The 24-hour strike that registered nurses at UPMC Altoona may hold starting at 7 a.m. Feb. 11 may be the first-ever strike at a UPMC facility.

Neither officials at the National Labor Relations Board office in Pittsburgh nor UPMC Altoona officials contacted Tuesday knew of a previous one.

It’s a strike the nurses – represented by SEIU Healthcare PA – don’t want, but were forced into by the hospital’s refusal to give nurses what they have already, despite the parent organization’s status as a $10-billion global enterprise, local President Paula Stellabotte said at a news conference Tuesday.

The hospital made its “last, best and final offer” on Friday, the day the old contract expired – an offer the hospital says is “fair” and financially prudent for the hospital – but the nurses voted with a 93 percent majority Monday to send the strike notice.

The basis of the strike is a series of unfair labor practice charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board within the past week, alleging that the hospital interfered with nurses’ right to organize for collective bargaining, that the hospital failed to bargain in good faith and that it violated the nurses’ existing collective bargaining agreement by unilaterally changing pharmacy and vision benefits, adding a charge to services that were formerly free.

The hospital rebutted the bad-faith bargaining allegations and called into question the motives of the nurses in news releases from spokesman Dave Cuzzolina.

“[We] have done everything reasonable to find common ground and reach an agreement,” Cuzzolina stated. “For the SEIU, this is no longer about organizing employees or negotiating for their represented members, but rather about creating a media spectacle to advance its political goals.”

The nurses are striking not to cripple the hospital but to show the hospital and the community they’re “sticking together,” in hopes the hospital would then take the nurses “seriously” and begin negotiating again, even before the strike is scheduled to start, Stellabotte said.

The main issues are staffing levels, pensions and health insurance, the nurses said.

The nurses have retreated from an earlier demand to turn sometimes-ignored staffing guidelines into mandates, they said.

But the hospital wants to weaken even the existing guidelines by eliminating the right to file grievances when those guidelines aren’t honored, the nurses said.

That violates the impression a high UPMC official had left with them shortly after UPMC acquired the hospital in July, saying pensions wouldn’t be “an issue,” Stellabotte said.

The pension proposal would reduce ultimate benefits for the 400 nurses hired before 2006 who have defined benefit plans by as much as 35 percent, based on how its plan would calculate benefits, the nurses say.

And UPMC’s health care offer – even though it’s a health care provider with an insurance arm – is worse than the policies in place in some other local companies that have UPMC insurance, according to the nurses.

The hospital’s overall package includes the same programs in place at other UPMC hospitals, which employ 62,000, including 11,000 nurses, according to the hospital.

The package is “very competitive in our markets,” and it will enable UPMC Altoona to retain and recruit “top talent,” while being affordable for the hospital “for the future,” Cuzzolina said.

The hospital agrees proper staffing is important and has offered to create a forum for “real time” settling of staffing issues, using “root cause analysis,” said Vice President for Human Resources Michelle Speck.

“It aligns with what was acceptable to them in the past,” Speck said.

The pension proposal means cuts for some, but it means enhancements for others, and those differences are an unavoidable outcome of the kind of meshing the hospital is trying to accomplish, Speck said.

“This is an expected part” of a successful transition, especially “in the midst of a challenging economic environment,” according to Cuzzolina.

“Change is hard,” Speck said.

For those who would lose out on pensions, the hospital “tried our best” for additional incentives to be fair, Speck said.

The health plan includes medical, prescription, dental, vision, short-term disability, long-term disability, life insurance, pension, matched savings, paid time off, tuition and other elements.

The strike is not about money, according to the nurses.

Still, according to the hospital, the nurses latest proposal calls for a 7 percent annual increase for a three-year contract, according to the hospital.

If the strike occurs, the hospital will “continue providing high quality health care services to our patients in a comfortable and safe environment “regardless of circumstances,” Cuzzolina stated.

Those services will include inpatient care and outpatient testing, surgeries and procedures, Cuzzolina stated. The Emergency Department, the Trauma Service, the Surgery Center and Station Medical Center will operate as usual, according to Cuzzolina.

The NLRB will investigate the unfair labor practice allegations but won’t resolve them before the strike would occur, according to Regional Director Bob Chester.

Eventually, an NLRB agent will meet with both sides to gather evidence, the parties will submit legal arguments, the agent will prepare a report, and Chester will decide whether there’s enough evidence to support some or all the allegations, Chester said.

If there is evidence to support any, he would call the parties and try to get them to work it out.

If they can’t, he would issue a complaint against the hospital and schedule a hearing before an administrative law judge.

The NLRB would prosecute the case, which also would involve filing of briefs.

The judge rules, and the case goes to the NLRB board in Washington, before which the sides can file “exceptions.”

The board rules, after which either party can appeal to federal district court, and beyond that, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the organization refuses to comply with an order, the NLRB can file for an enforcement order in federal district court.

The aim is not to penalize but to obtain compliance, Chester said.

That can include, for example, reinstatement for an unjustly fired worker, back pay and an expungement of the unfavorable record, Chester said.

UPMC has a history with the NLRB.

About a year ago, the agency crafted a settlement with UPMC on a “multi-faceted” complaint that originated with charges by SEIU Healthcare PA on behalf of non-union workers in downtown Pittsburgh facilities of UPMC, alleging “interrogations, threats” and discharges, Chester said.

A trial is set to begin Monday that could have a bearing on whether UPMC is in full compliance with the settlement agreement, as it deals with additional unfair labor practices on similar matters connected with the same group of hospitals, according to Chester.

Employees who strike because of unfair labor practice allegations cannot be displaced by permanent replacement workers if the employees make an unconditional offer to return, Chester said.

Those who strike because of economic issues “cannot displace their [permanent] replacement,” he said.

UPMC officials didn’t reply to messages from the Mirror Tuesday evening asking whether the Altoona nurses would be welcome to come back to work after their 24-hour strike.

One-day strikes are not uncommon in health care, Chester said.

Often the threat of such a strike can get the parties back to bargaining, he said.

He’s not aware of a one-day strike that became a precursor to an indefinite, traditional strike, Chester said.

One-day strikes are “softer” than indefinite strikes, but even they can generate bitterness, Chester said.

Chester said he had no idea of the success rate of one-day strikes.

The hospital will hire a security firm and bring in extra officers from its own police force if the strike occurs, according to Speck.

It has hired Huffmaster, a company whose website states “When strikes threaten, no one works harder for you. While no company welcomes a strike, every employer with a unionized workforce faces the threat.”

Still, the hospital doesn’t anticipate trouble, Speck said.

Nor does it expect any sort of sympathetic job action from other workers – including unionized practical nurses, medical technicians, maintenance and housekeeping workers, she said.

The Mirror left a message but didn’t hear back from the president of those workers.

Stellabotte said the nurses feel “disrespected.”

“I wouldn’t want anybody to feel that way,” Speck said.

“I respect them.”

Asked what happens if the strike fails, Stellabotte said, “I guess we’ll have to regroup.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.