Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Temple Nurses Win Strike!

By Betsey Piette
Published May 7, 2010 7:29 PM

Chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, it’s back to work we go!” nurses and allied professional staff at Temple University Hospital returned to their jobs on April 30 after a successful strike that lasted more than four weeks. The nurses’ victory strikes a blow for organized labor in the Philadelphia area.

The jubilant workers were sent off by a small but enthusiastic rally of supporters and family members outside the hospital on North Broad Street in Philadelphia for the start of the 7 p.m. shift. To bolster their victory, the members of the Pennsylvania Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) had the opportunity to jeer at scab workers who were leaving the hospital on luxury charter buses for the very last time. TUH had hired the scabs in an attempt to defeat the union.

Temple management had tried to use the economic crisis as a battering ram to force workers to take a concession-laden contract. The workers’ solidarity and their determination to stand up to the hospital’s blatant effort to break their union finally forced management to greatly improve what they had called their “last, best offer,” put on the table in September.

Another key factor contributing to the victory was the growing support from other unions and community organizations made evident in a major rally outside the hospital on April 21.

After weeks when management refused to bend, progress in negotiations started a few days after this rally. The result was a contract with most of the wage and benefit provisions sought by the union.

The final agreement also eliminated anti-union provisions sought by management. These included a “gag” clause that prevented nurses from speaking of problems in delivering care, an attempt to eliminate agency shop, and a proposal for separate contract term lengths for the nurses and the professional staff.

More than 50 workers, students and community activists, striking Temple workers and their family members attended an April 29 benefit in West Philadelphia to support the strike. Jobs with Justice, the Philadelphia International Action Center, the Bail Out the People Movement, the A-Space and Health Care NOW sponsored the action. This benefit, earlier aimed at collecting funds and supplies of diapers, canned goods, paper products and other items needed by strikers and their families, also ended up being a victory celebration.

Some 97 percent of the members approved the new contract, which also partially restored a tuition reimbursement benefit for workers’ dependents that management had eliminated from the existing contract in March 2009. This was the final sticking point on the last day of intense negotiations.

The strike of more than 1,500 workers began on March 31. During the strike, TUH management paid an estimated $5 million a week to a notorious strikebreaking company, Health Source Global Staffing, to secure replacement workers. These scabs’ salaries averaged $5,500 a week, plus transportation, housing, meals and security.

PASNAP has pointed out that what management spent in just two weeks of the strike would have covered all the additional costs of the four-year contract sought by the union.

Temple may owe unemployment benefits

Temple’s headache may not be over. Shortly after a contract was ratified on April 29, PASNAP executive director Bill Cruice announced that TUH “could be on the hook for a lot of money.” A wrinkle in Pennsylvania labor law might lead to a decision that the 28-day strike was a lockout by management. “It could amount to $1.5 million,” Cruice estimated.

When Temple University Hospital eliminated the tuition reimbursement benefit in 2009, PASNAP filed unfair labor practice charges with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. PASNAP charged that TUH had to negotiate that kind of change since it was a benefit from an existing contract.

Although the union’s contract came to an end in September, its members continued to work. In January the Labor Relations Board ruled against the hospital, ordering them to pay refunds to eligible workers. Temple responded by appealing to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, asking for a stay with the Labor Relations Board. The court denied Temple’s request on March 16.

On March 26, after giving the hospital a strike notice one week earlier, Cruice informed management that the union would continue to work under the terms of their old contract as long it included the tuition benefit. Despite the labor board ruling, Temple management refused this request, an act the union claims constitutes a lockout under state law.

Up to the end of negotiations Temple’s management wanted the union to drop its opposition to the hospital’s appeal of the labor board’s ruling on the tuition reimbursement and agree not to seek back payment for workers, but PASNAP refused.

In the end TUH had to agree to set up a $550,000 account to fund back payments. In addition, it appears that PASNAP’s resilience led to hospital management announcing a new tuition benefit for the rest of the hospital’s 5,000-person staff.

Even as jubilant workers gathered to return to work on April 30, Temple University Hospital’s management tried to get in one last jab by issuing an edict that workers could not wear union buttons or t-shirts with the PASNAP logo once they entered the building. Union president Maureen May counseled members to keep their buttons on.

“Wear them and if asked to take them off, ask if refusal to do so could result in disciplinary action,” May said. “If they say yes, take them off, but notify the union and we will file an unfair labor practice.

“It’s not about a pin,” May told her members, “It’s about union solidarity and we will win!”

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