UPMC, nurses reach tentative pact

UPMC Altoona and its registered nurses reached a tentative agreement on a new contract late Wednesday, potentially bringing to an end two months of contention that climaxed with a 24-hour strike early this month, according to hospital spokesman Dave Cuzzolina.

The hospital has committed to the new deal, but the nurses’ rank and file must ratify it, Cuzzolina said.

The 800-member group planned to vote soon, he said.

The Mirror left messages late Wednesday with three nurse leaders and a spokeswoman for the SEIU Healthcare PA union that represents them but didn’t get a response.

The sides have apparently worked out staffing, pension and health insurance disagreements that the nurses said were the obstacles to a new deal.

The nurses had said repeatedly that staffing was the biggest issue because of its implications for patient care.

The hospital has maintained that, ultimately, it all came down to economics.

The nurses have been working under terms of a deal that expired at the end of last year.

Talks began in late October, with the nurses saying they were optimistic, based on management behavior since UPMC acquired the former Altoona Regional Health System in July – an acquisition the nurses had questioned in the months before it happened.

In late December, the nurses went public with their dissatisfaction about the progress of talks, when they held a candlelight vigil at a church in Fairview.

On Jan. 15, they voted to authorize the union to send a strike notice, if and when it saw fit.

On Jan. 24, the contract – which had been extended – expired.

On Jan. 27, the nurses voted to reject the hospital’s “last, best and final offer” and to strike, starting 7 a.m. Feb. 11.

That same week, before the strike, the hospital reached out and the sides began talking again.

But on Feb. 1, those talks collapsed again, and strike planning resumed.

The strike began in bitter cold, with pickets holding signs, marching and chanting on the sidewalk on Howard Avenue in front of the hospital.

The hospital maintained all services with 250 replacement nurses – hired for four days – and 182 regular nurses who crossed the picket line.

The nurses filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the hospital’s keeping the replacement workers on the job past the end of the strike – the hospital said it didn’t want to pay for redundant services – adding to previous charges alleging interference with attempts to organize, failure to bargain in good faith and unilaterally changing health benefits in violation of the contract.

The nurses held a spirited community rally the day the strike ended, then traveled on buses to Pittsburgh the following day for a march at UPMC headquarters.

Talks recommenced Feb. 18.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.