Plans for UPMC strike remain

The registered nurses at UPMC Altoona are once again planning a one-day strike Feb. 11, after talks broke off Saturday – the second day of negotiations designed to avert a walkout following a nurses’ vote Monday to issue a strike notice.

“UPMC is disrespecting nurses and the Altoona community by cutting off discussions and making a strike all but inevitable,” said SEIU Healthcare PA local President Paula Stellabotte in a news release. “We were prepared to continue negotiating until we had a contract, and it’s frustrating that management did not share that commitment.”

According to the hospital, the parties had agreed to resume negotiations to “talk about two specific issues” – the union’s top concerns – but the union “reneged,” bringing “a much broader agenda,” said UPMC spokesman Dave Cuzzolina.

The hospital has “the highest respect” for nurses but not for their “rigid bargaining position that attempts to go over old ground again and again and again,” Cuzzolina stated.

UPMC has been bargaining in good faith for four months, done “everything reasonable to find common ground” and has offered a contract that is fair to nurses, the community, local businesses and their employees who must pay for health care, Cuzzolina said.

The end of the talks Saturday surprised the nurses, who had “made what we thought were significant compromises” after Friday’s session, according to Stellabotte.

Nurse compromises included concessions on the “big ticket items” – but not staffing, which is the most important item, Stellabotte said.

The organization has compromised only “a little,” she said.

Wages are an “irrelevant” issue for the RNs, “the last thing on everybody’s list,” according to Stellabotte.

Asked about the hospital’s recent report that the nurses have been asking for a wage increase of 7 percent per year wage for three years, she said, “I don’t know where that came from.”

She declined, however, to say what the nurses’ wage request actually is, saying she didn’t want to negotiate in the media.

“There’s no greed on our side,” she said. “I think our intentions are pure.”

Economic issues are hardly irrelevant in negotiations, according to UPMC.

“Despite the union saying its primary concerns are not economic, the talks have inevitably gravitated to economic issues,” Cuzzolina wrote.

The hospital is offering wage increases of 2 percent per year to the nurses, who already earn twice the average income for the Altoona area, according to Cuzzolina.

“The nurses have agreed to that but with conditions that effectively double the raises,” he said.

The hospital is proposing the same benefit programs that UPMC has for its other hospitals, which employ 62,000, including 11,000 nurses, he said.

The hospital is pushing to “standardize” UPMC Altoona to match the organization’s hospitals in Pittsburgh, Stellabotte said.

Standardization doesn’t make sense, however, because while UPMC can dictate in the region where it’s dominant, it needs to compete here with non-UPMC hospitals like Mount Nittany Medical Center and Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center to retain and recruit nurses, she said.

Yet SEIU recently ratified a contract at Mount Nittany with the same 2 percent annual raise for three years being offered in Altoona, Cuzzolina said.

“It defies logic to claim that the benefits UPMC offers – and successfully recruits with – in numerous other markets in western Pennsylvania are somehow insufficient for this area,” Cuzzolina said.

UPMC is also pushing for the autonomy to “change things whenever they want” – including staffing, benefits and starting wages, according to Stellabotte.

The drive for autonomy reflects on UPMC being “more policy-driven [while the union] is more contract-driven,” she said.

UPMC is mostly non-union, she said. UPMC McKeesport and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic have union groups, she said.

But they’re much smaller than Altoona’s 800-member RN group, according to Stellabotte. When asked whether she thinks the organization is trying to break her union, she said: “I don’t know. I wish I knew.”

The contract for UPMC Altoona’s licensed practical nurses, medical technicians, maintenance, food service and housekeeping workers, represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, expires in mid-year, which means UPMC will have another union deal to negotiate here soon, Stellabotte said.

Dealing with UPMC has been vastly different than dealing with the management at Altoona Regional, which UPMC acquired in July, Stellabotte said.

“It’s sad some group has come in and just changed everything,” she said. “[It has shown] general disrespect for the whole thing – the city, the facility, the employees [and] the patients.”

Asked if she was scared, she said she was “not crazy about going on strike – but very determined.”

Nevertheless, when they come back to work after the strike, she plans to begin negotiations anew, she said.

“If that’s what it takes, to suck it up and sit down, that’s what we’ll do,” she said.

The hospital plans to continue “all services without interruption” during the strike, according to the letter.

It will use contract nurses, hospital officials have said.

It’s not clear when the nurses who strike can return to work after the 24-hour walkout, scheduled to end at 7 a.m. Feb. 12.

That may depend on the agreement the hospital makes with the company providing contract nurses, Stellabotte said.

“After a strike, those employees who are now unconditionally available to return to work may have a transition to allow a reasonable and orderly return back to their ordinary operations,” Cuzzolina wrote.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.