After months of contract negotiations, the unionized nurses at the University of Vermont Medical Center are on strike.
Nurses voted overwhelmingly in June to authorize a two-day strike to last from 7 a.m. Thursday to 7 a.m. Saturday. Last-ditch talks with medical center leadership failed Wednesday evening.
Follow live developments all day here at BurlingtonFreePress.com:
Update from hospital president
2 p.m: University of Vermont Medical Center President Eileen Whalen said overall the hospital network is running smoothly with the use of about 365 replacement nurses while staff nurses are in the midst of the first day of a two-day strike.
Whalen said there were some problems with access to the hospital’s computer systems but those were resolved quickly.
About 600 replacement nurses were flown in and trained to cover the strike. Whalen said 275 were working at the Burlington hospital today and 90 at other clinics.
“We have the same number of nurses working at the hospital today as we would any other day,” Whalen said.
The union said 1,200 nurses signed up to walk picket lines during the strike. The union represents about 1,800 nurses.
Whalen said about 125 nurses had told the administration they would work during the scheduled strike, but she did not know how many were at work Thursday.
Whalen reiterated the hospital would welcome back its staff nurses on Saturday and said she was personally looking forward to doing so.
No negotiation sessions are scheduled during the strike. Whalen said she thought a “cooling off period” was wise.
Support from other unions
12:40 p.m.: Andrew Styles and Greg Gillard, both Burlington teachers, are among the other union members who have shown support for the nurses
Asked whether the district ever considered bussing in non-union teachers during last year’s four-day teacher’s strike, Styles said “no – it would blow their budget in a couple of days.”
Gillard added: “We can’t get subs when we’re sick!”
Nurses rally, with music
12 p.m.: The nurses held a rally at noon near the hospital’s main entrance. Nurses from other states spoke in support of the nurses in Burlington, including members of the Massachusetts and New York State nurses associations. Speakers echoed feelings expressed locally of unfair disparity between executive pay and nurses pay.
Music and chants, including “U-V-M-M-C Shame on you!” followed speeches. The New York State Nurses Association brought a mini-marching band.
Statement from the hospital
11:48 a.m.: UVM Medical Center President Eileen Whalen sent a statement.
“This morning, the union representing our nurses began a 48-hour strike after we were unable to meet their demand for a 23% raise over the next three years. We have activated our comprehensive plan to continue providing the highest quality care to our patients and families.
“At 7 a.m., hundreds of contingency nurses moved smoothly into place throughout the hospital. Clinical and operations leaders are working together in the Incident Command Center, which will be active for the duration of the strike. We have received no reports of problems with patients, visitors or staff accessing our facilities. The vast majority of patients will not see an impact in terms of their appointments. Anyone who has not heard from their doctor’s office should plan on keeping their appointments for later today and tomorrow.”
The nurses union said at one point in this week’s negotiations it proposed a 22 percent raise over three years.
Inflatable ‘fat cat’ joins picket line
9 a.m.: A large inflatable “fat cat” holding a bag of money, smoking a cigar and wearing
a three-piece suit sprouted on the lawn near a picket line on Main Street this morning. Nurse Molly Wallner said the cat is a symbol for what nurses see as an unfair discrepancy between University of Vermont Medical Center executive pay and the nurses pay.
Chanting and honking in full swing
7:45 a.m.: Nurses and supporters received loud support (in the form of honks) from morning motorists as they demonstrated on the southern side of Colchester Avenue near UVM Medical Center’s main hospital entrance.
The nurses made their own noise with several choice chants:
“Safe staffing saves lives!”
“What do we want? Fair contract. When do we want it? Now!”
“Hey Brumsted what do you say how many bucks did you make today?”
John Brumsted, who the nurses referenced in their chant, is the CEO of the medical center.
Earlier in the morning, the marchers made a loop around the hospital campus and crossed East Avenue. It took several lights for all of them to make it across the road. They did not disrupt traffic.
A medical center SUV was seen periodically patrolling the ranks as the marchers settled into place on Colchester Avenue.
Among the marchers were several four-legged friends and Democratic candidate for governor James Ehlers.
Several marchers were also carrying guitars but had yet to commence serenading the crowd.
— Reporter Joel Banner Baird
Buses with replacement nurses arriving
Many nurses had gathered outside UVM Medical Center early in the 6 a.m. hour Thursday, prepared to begin picketing promptly at 7 a.m.
At the same time, a Premier bus entered the medical complex, appearing to bring in a busload of replacement nurses who will keep the medical center functioning and treating patients while the nurses are on strike Thursday and Friday.
How last efforts to avert strike failed
Eileen Whalen, president and chief operating officer of the hospital, personally rejected the union’s final pre-strike offer on pay, according to union negotiating team member Samira Lawson, who is a labor and delivery nurse.
A major point of contention in the negotiations was pay. The nurses union has demanded a 24 percent increase in salaries over three years. The hospital’s proposal was for a 13 percent increase over three years, but it raised that offer by 1 percentage point Wednesday evening to 14 percent.
The nurses countered with 22 percent. Whalen, sitting at the table with union negotiators, rejected that counter-offer and did not make a new offer, Lawson said.
So the nurses head to the picket lines at 7 a.m. Thursday, in a move that affects patients, doctors, administrators and countless others faced now with two days of uncertainty and no sense of how ultimately an agreement might eventually be reached.
‘We don’t want to do this’
This has been a long time coming. The previous contract expired Monday, but both sides had been on a collision course for months.
The medical center and the union have each told their sides of the story in news conferences over the last few weeks. One thing is clear: Neither side wanted this strike to happen.
“It’s nauseating,” Phillip Bowler, a nurse and member of the union’s bargaining committee, said on Tuesday. “We don’t want to do this.”
“We owe it to the community to work as hard as possible to reach an agreement and avoid the disruptions a strike would cause,” Whalen said in early July.
Hospital remains open
The hospital has repeatedly said the quality of care would remain high while replacement nurses take picketing nurses’ places.
Substitute nurses will be brought in during the strike. Whalen said Tuesday the hospital has already spent the money to fly in and train 600 replacement nurses. She didn’t provide an estimate of a two-day strike’s total price tag, but said it would be very costly.
An administrator said 68 elective surgeries involving complex teams of medical personnel that had been scheduled for Thursday and Friday were postponed.
Nurses have raised concerns that the hospital is unprepared to operate during the strike, contending that the number of current nursing vacancies has already made working conditions difficult.
Nurses are planning to picket at several UVM Medical facilities including the main campus on Colchester Avenue in Burlington, at primary offices in other towns and Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin.
Once the strike ends on Saturday morning, the nurses will go back to work, and contract negotiations will continue, although no sessions had yet been set. Under federal labor law, the nurses can call for a second strike and additional strike beyond that if necessary, according to Jim Grogan, the nurses’ attorney. Grogan said the nurses can also vote to strike indefinitely, instead of the two days of the current strike.
“The nurses chose to do a two-day strike because they wanted to create the minimal amount of disruption, but at the same time to make clear to management that the status quo would not be tolerated,” Grogan said.
Read more on the nurses strike:
- What would UVM Medical Center nurses’ strike mean for patients? 2010 study raises concerns
- Is UVM Medical Center ready to cover for the 2-day strike? Nurses are not so sure.
- UVM nurses strike: Hospital, union to meet again, 15 hours before planned strike
- UVM Medical Center reschedules surgeries, trains replacement nurses in case of strike
- UVM nurses strike: What you need to know
- UVM Medical nurses strike: Burlington unions say they’ll join nurses on picket line
- The numbers behind the UVM nurses’ strike: How much do they make?