Middle ground needed

Even if registered nurses at UPMC Altoona can hammer out a new contract prior to a one-day strike set for Feb. 11, a reality consistent with new ownership in the health care industry, as well as in other aspects of the business world, will remain.

It is that change is inevitable.

This country’s business environment is dotted with examples where new owners have implemented changes within their acquisitions, not only to make those acquisitions more consistent with the workings of their larger operations, but also to enhance revenue and insulate against financial losses.

Many times those moves proved correct, although sometimes they required big adjustments by workers.

UPMC spent a lot of money acquiring what used to be Altoona Regional Health System. That and the power UPMC wields as a hospital network of immense size is what is driving UPMC’s hard stance regarding a new labor contract for local RNs.

A similar tough stance will be in place when UPMC negotiates later this year with the local hospital’s licensed practical nurses, medical technicians, and maintenance, food service and housekeeping workers, all of whom are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Those employees’ current contract expires at mid-year. Meanwhile, the registered nurses, whose latest contract expired at the end of 2013, are represented by a union local of SEIU Healthcare PA.

Most of UPMC’s hospitals are non-union. It’s understandable that UPMC’s rigidity at the bargaining table would not sit well with the local nurses; contract bargaining was easier under the former ownership.

But if UPMC were to cave to local employee contract demands vastly inconsistent with pay, benefits and work rules that exist at other UPMC hospitals, that might portend future, costly employee unrest at some of those other facilities.

That wouldn’t be an asset to UPMC Altoona, just as it might negatively affect other UPMC operations.

It can be argued that UPMC is going too far in what it is expecting immediately from its first pact with Altoona registered nurses – not only about pay and fringe benefits, but also on staffing rules. Perhaps it is.

The nurses have a reasonable, albeit biased, opinion regarding the staffing issue – reportedly the issue that’s been the most serious roadblock to a contract accord up to now.

But pay and benefits – the economic issues – also often have occupied center stage in the unsuccessful bargaining, even apparently during what UPMC spokesman Dave Cuzzolina called the union’s “much broader agenda” brought to the negotiations table Saturday, when the latest round of talks broke off.

As tough as it might be for Altoona’s registered nurses to accept much of what UPMC is proposing and demanding, it seems clear they will have to agree to some contract provisions that they’ll abhor.

Meanwhile, UPMC Altoona patients who value how the hospital has served them in the past are hoping for compromise from the health care giant and ongoing assurances that the care the hospital provides won’t be undermined by lingering employee unhappiness.

UPMC and the registered nurses should redouble their efforts to avoid the Feb. 11 work stoppage – and any future one – by crafting a compromise settlement both sides can live with and under which employee morale will remain strong.