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Massachusetts Nurses Reach Tentative Deal to End 9 1/2 Month Strike; Pact Contains ‘Back to Work’ Provision

WORCESTER, Mass.—Nurses at St. Vincent Hospital have reached a tentative contract agreement that would end their nine-and-a-half-month strike, the Massachusetts Nurses Association [MNA] announced Dec. 17.

 The proposed contract would give all 700 striking nurses the right to return to their old jobs without any changes, the union said. The Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare chain, which owns the 381-bed hospital in Worcester, had derailed prospects for a previous deal in August by refusing to accept such a “back to work” provision, insisting that it would not voluntarily displace strikebreakers it had hired as “permanent replacement nurses.” The MNA responded by filing unfair-labor-practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

“Every striking nurse will be returned to their exact same position, hours, and unit,” Marlena Pellegrino, a nurse at St. Vincent for 35 years and co-chair of the union’s local bargaining unit there, told LaborPress. “That’s the golden nugget.”

The deal was reached after two weeks of federal mediation, capped by an in-person session Dec. 17 mediated by Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, former head of the Greater Boston Building Trades coalition, at a union hall in Boston. 

The MNA said it could not give further details of the agreement until the nurses vote on ratifying it, but there will be improvements in staffing, the issue that provoked the March 8 walkout.

“We went on strike for safer care,” Pellegrino says. “There will be more nurses at the bedside.” The union is recommending that nurses ratify the contract, she said, and the vote will probably come in “very early January.”

Hospital management said the agreement would enable strikebreakers to keep their jobs. “The hospital believes every nurse who chose to work at Saint Vincent during the strike is a hero to this community, and they should be celebrated for their role in delivering quality care during this challenging time,” it said in a statement.

Pellegrino said there would be “different options” for strikebreakers to continue working, but emphasized, “there will be no displacement, no replacement.”

The MNA had demanded that nurses should generally not have to take care of more than four patients at a time on medical-surgical units. The union said the nurses “did not get everything they sought,” but “they secured important staffing improvements.” 

Pellegrino said the deal’s staffing provisions were largely agreed on in August, and for the last four months, the back-to-work provisions were the sticking point. 

“It’s a victory for labor that we were able to stand up and hold our ground,” she added.

The latest surge of the Covid-19 pandemic, driven by the new Omicron variant of the virus, intensified pressure to end the strike. According to Massachusetts Department of Public Health figures, the number of new cases increased in every county in the state during the first two weeks of December. Worcester County, whose 830,000 people include the 185,000 in the city of Worcester, reported 8,179 new cases, more than one out of every eight in Massachusetts. 

“The decision to allow striking nurses to return to their original positions followed careful consideration of the clinical challenges expected this winter throughout Massachusetts, and the resultant need for as many nurses as possible to provide quality care for our community,” St. Vincent management said.

“All the hospitals are bursting at the seams,” said Pellegrino. Patients in Massachusetts are being airlifted to other states, and the hospital has 100 beds closed, she added.

“We’ve been wanting to get back to the bedside,” she said. “We’ll be walking in there with our heads held high. We’ve honored our profession.”

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