UPMC nurses strike to begin

This morning, registered nurses at UPMC Altoona will begin a 24-hour strike – likely the first-ever strike at a UPMC facility – to protest the hospital’s breaking off recent negotiations without a resolution to issues of

staffing, pension and health insurance.

The nurses will gather across the street from the hospital’s main entrance about 6:30 a.m., then cross the public sidewalk on the hospital side at 7 to launch the strike, according to officials of SEIU Healthcare PA, which represents the nurses.

Local President Paula Stellabotte said she’s less nervous than she has been in the run up to the strike, based on the “solidity” of the 800-member group.

Still, 25 percent of the nurses plan to cross the picket line, according to surveys taken by the hospital, hospital officials said at a news conference Monday.

The hospital will provide secure off-site parking, shuttle buses and a secure entry point for them, for a total of 270 hired replacement nurses and for management, so the hospital can continue to operate normally, according to hospital officials.

The hospital has nothing to fear, according to Stellabotte, who predicted the nurses will behave in a “professional” manner.

“We’re not fighters,” she said.

Nurses often work under stress, dealing with upset doctors, patients and patients’ families, and are “used to being able to keep our cool,” she said.

The nurses have been able to remain calm during negotiations, even when hospital representatives have “disrespected” them, she said.

The strikers may not engage in violence or block ingress or egress, according to Bob Chester, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board.

Cat calls – even foul language – are a common feature of picket lines, however, he said.

“I’ve certainly heard a lot of swearing [when present during picketing],” he said. “But I don’t want to be quoted as saying in the paper that we condone bad language.”

If strikers end up being disciplined by the company for “picket line misconduct,” the agency will investigate, he said.

Still, the NLRB won’t have anyone at the scene.

“I’m sure there will be enough people there to observe,” he said.

Even though the strike will last only 24 hours, none of the nurses can escape a declaration for one side or the other – even those who don’t happen to be scheduled to work between 7 a.m. today and 7 a.m. Wednesday – because the hospital is calling all the RNs into work this morning, to help make up for the shortfall created by the strike, according to Cuzzolina.

The hospital does not plan to allow the strikers to return immediately after the strike ends, having signed a deal for a minimum of four days with Huffmaster, the company providing the replacement nurses and extra security, according to Murray.

The striking nurses will be informed individually when they can come back, UPMC Altoona President Jerry Murray said.

The nurses plan to come as a group at 7 a.m. Wednesday to show their willingness to return immediately, according to the hospital.

Asked what the nurses plan to do if the hospital locks them out for a time after the strike, Stellabotte shrugged.

“One day at a time,” she said. “We’ll see how they handle it.”

The two sides have tentatively scheduled post-strike negotiations, according to Murray.

Stellabotte is hopeful that the nurses won’t be back in the same situation that precipitated the strike because they will have shown they plan to “stick together for the patients [and oppose] lower standards,” she said.

The hospital doesn’t know of any non-RN hospital workers who plan to stay off work in sympathy with the strikers, officials said.

Non-hospital nurses at other UPMC Altoona-related organizations are not part of the strike, hospital officials said.

The nurses cannot use vacation time to get paid for the time they miss in connection with the strike, based on federal law, according to Stellabotte.

Hospital officials on Monday tried to cast doubt on the nurses’ claims that staffing issues at Altoona are at the heart of their dissatisfaction.

Rather, SEIU is trying to “leverage” the situation in Altoona to unionize the UPMC facilities in Pittsburgh, which has been trying to unionize for five years, according to Murray.

That’s not true, according to Stellabotte.

“We make the decisions for our own hospital,” she said. “Nobody in SEIU tells us what to do.”

Economic issues – rather than staffing – is at the heart of it, according to Chief Operating Officer Ron McConnell.

The nurses originally wanted guarantees that the hospital would comply with staffing guidelines they had negotiated over the past three years.

The hospital wants to comply, but it can’t guarantee 100 percent adherence because call offs and other issues make it impossible, said Vice President for Nursing Christopher Rickens.

UPMC is trying to integrate Altoona – and thus the nurses – into its worldwide system of 60,000 employees, and some things are better and some things are not as good, McConnell said.

Overall, though, the

offer is “competitive,” he said.

Nurses said the offer wouldn’t allow the hospital to be competitive with hospitals in this region for retention and recruitment of RNs.

The pre-acquisition “model” wasn’t sustainable, Murray said.

And the integration challenges would have occurred if Altoona Regional would have picked a different partner, like Geisinger, Murray said.

Not only the hospital, but all corollary organizations in its family of facilities will be operating normally, according to Chief Medical Officer Linnane Batzel.

Moreover, the replacement contingent will include specialty nurses, Batzel said.

If a patient is scheduled for an orthopedic operation, that patient will have an orthopedic nurse in attendance, she said.

The hospital will also work through the normal UPMC quality checklists, Batzel said.

Striking nurses will hold a candlelight vigil at 5:30 p.m. outside the hospital today and a community rally in the Altoona Area High School Auditorium at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.