UPMC nurses strike ends

By organized labor standards, the registered nurses of UPMC Altoona and their SEIU Healthcare PA union have been mild in their treatment of the hospital’s new parent company, despite a one-day strike Tuesday to gain traction for bargaining on a first contract.

Halfway through a community rally Wednesday evening, however, a leader from another union injected a little vitriol.

It served notice for an SEIU warning that the nurses could reprise this week’s walkout.

“How dare UPMC come into this community and tell us what is going to happen,” said Mickey Sgro, president of District Council 83 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the hospital’s practical nurses, techs, maintenance and housekeeping workers, whose contract expires mid-year.

“You gotta get mean,” Sgro told the audience, which included many nurses who had stood in single-digit temperatures the last few days to protest what they said is the hospital’s refusal to accept contract language designed to ensure adequate staffing and benefits good enough to retain and recruit good nurses in this market – claims the hospital disputes.

“You gotta get mad,” Sgro said. “They made a mistake coming to central Pennsylvania and saying they’re going to kick our [rears].”

“[The nurses] have been trying to be civil,” said Tom Swires, a railroad worker and unionist in the audience, whose wife is an RN at UPMC Altoona. “They need someone like this guy.”

Perhaps catching fire from Sgro after two days in the cold, SEIU Pennsylvania President Neal Bisno spoke of his members’ growing boldness, on the eve of their trip today to Pittsburgh to picket UPMC headquarters.

Who among them would have imagined themselves as strikers before recently, he asked.

Who among their colleagues were they surprised to see on the picket line, he asked.

“There comes a time in life in the school yard or the streets of Altoona you have to stand up to a bully,” he said. “To make the values you talk about real.”

Standing up, rather than taking the path of least resistance, isn’t easy, he said, citing legendary stories of unions that stood up to the Pinkertons, even the Army, with some losing their lives.

But change doesn’t happen unless you “go out of your comfort zone,” he said.

Then he backed off, telling the nurses that they need to accept that health care is changing, and they’ll need to accept compromise at next week’s recently scheduled renewal of contract negotiations.

But so will UPMC, he said.

They should be proud because they stood up to the state’s largest employer, he said.

But they may need to do it again, he said.

“You have to be ready to keep fighting,” he said. “You may have to strike again.”

Asked for comment after receiving a brief description of the rally, hospital spokesman Dave Cuzzolina said only, “We are looking forward to resuming negotiations next week.”

At the rally, Bisno announced that the union has filed a set of unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the hospital for not immediately readmitting the nurses to work after the end of the strike Wednesday.

Of the 800 RNs, 182 crossed the picket lines to join 250 contract replacement workers.

But the hospital only allowed about 31 regulars to resume working Wednesday, despite a large delegation who approached the main entrance to show their willingness to return.

“If you are an RN who is on strike and have not received a call from your supervisor to return to work, you have been temporarily replaced,” a hospital police officer announced on a bullhorn.

The hospital is bringing the regulars back slowly, as needed to fill gaps until the minimum four days required by the contract company expires, the hospital said.

The regulars should all be back by Monday, Cuzzolina said.

That isn’t good enough for the strikers.

“It is outrageous that UPMC is still paying temporary staff when there are hundreds of nurses standing right outside their doors who know the hospital, this community and these patients,” said nurse Sue Delozier, quoted in a union news release.

The hospital is paying $1.6 million to Huffmaster, the contract replacement nurse and supplemental security firm. That does not include per diem, hotel, travel and on-site transportation costs, according to the union.

“[The hospital] is transitioning our nurses back to work in an orderly fashion,” Cuzzolina said.

Despite the return-to-work controversy, things went smoothly inside during the strike, according to Cuzzolina.

There were no “security incidents,” no cancellations of surgeries or procedures because of the strike and no dip in business because of the strike, he said.

While UPMC Altoona is dealing publicly with the unhappiness of its registered nurses, neighboring Mount Nittany Medical Center is conducting an RN recruitment campaign to accommodate an expansion.

One might conclude that Mount Nittany is looking to take advantage of Altoona’s problems.

Not true, according to Mount Nittany spokeswoman Nichole Monica.

“The timing is purely coincidental,” she said. “We’ve been planning this since November.”

The recruitment campaign is focusing on nurses to work in the operating room and in critical care services, she said.

The hospital needs nurses to support the hospital’s growth, which includes the opening of a group of operating suites, she said.

The campaign includes an open house on Tuesday and ads in area publications, she said.

Is the timing fortuitous as well as coincidental?

“We don’t think that’s the reason we want people to consider [working at] this place,” she said.

Rather, the hospital wants nurses who want to work specifically at Mount Nittany, and who are a good fit for the hospital, she said.

“The timing is what it is,” she said.

Even apart from the current campaign, the hospital is always looking for experienced nurses, she said.

The Mount Nittany package is “highly competitive,” Monica said.

At the close of the rally Wednesday, nurses’ local President Paula Stellabotte made what she insisted wasn’t a Freudian slip – reverting to a name that hasn’t been valid since two mergers ago – but that seemed to symbolize her group’s insistence that the local hospital must remain a possession of the community, not the big corporation from Pittsburgh.

“I have never been so proud to be an Altoona Hospital nurse,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.