Hospital Nurses Union Takes Its Case to Island Community

By JULIA WELLS

Nurses at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital this week fired back at chief executive officer Kevin Burchill, charging that he has forced them into a bitter contract dispute that, left unresolved, could spell the end of high-quality nursing at the Island's only hospital. The nurses also said they will now take their case into the Vineyard community in a public appeal for support.

"Our goal is to always negotiate in good faith towards a settlement. But it appears Mr. Burchill would rather dictate than negotiate. We were appalled by Mr. Burchill's unprofessional and threatening tactics, and we are equally appalled that he chose to drag this issue into the public arena so prematurely," declared Rick Lambos, an emergency room nurse who is chairman of the local bargaining unit for some 35 registered nurses. The nurses are members of the Massachusetts Nursing Association (MNA).

Mr. Lambos made remarks in both a prepared statement issued for the press this week and in an interview with the Gazette. Nurses Betsy VanLandingham and Mary Ellen Larsen joined Mr. Lambos in the interview.

All three longtime nurses said they were shocked and saddened at the recent turn of events, which they said mars a 30-year history of good-faith negotiations between hospital nurses and management.

The statement from the nurses came one week after Mr. Burchill went public with the contract dispute, among other things announcing that he had signed an agreement with a Colorado company to provide replacement nurses in the event of a strike. Mr. Burchill boasted last week that he had waved the contract to the replacement company in front of the Island nurses at the last negotiating session.

Nurses said bluntly this week that they do not want a strike.

"If a strike should occur, it will only be because Kevin Burchill wants a strike and pushed your nurses out into the street and away from your bedside," Mr. Lambos said in the prepared statement.

The nurses are now officially working without a contract and Mr. Burchill has refused the latest request for an extension. The contract dispute is in federal mediation, but nurses said this week that Mr. Burchill took the dispute out of the negotiating room and into the press at a very early stage. The contract expired on Sept. 22. The dispute went to voluntary federal mediation after only one session. The next mediation session is set for Nov. 20.

Last week Mr. Burchill went public with the hospital management side of the dispute.

This week the nurses answered.

"It is important that the public be informed . . . and understand the impact on nursing at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital if hospital management . . . insists on pushing the nurses' backs to the wall," Mr. Lambos said in the statement.

Mr. Lambos, Ms. VanLandingham and Ms. Larsen said the nurses union agreed by consensus at the Monday meeting:

* To distribute leaflets explaining the nurses' position, starting with the Martha's Vineyard-Nantucket football game on Saturday.

* To petition individual members of the hospital board of trustees to intervene in the dispute.

* To stage an informational picket if necessary.

Mr. Lambos said educational literature about strikes was distributed to some 26 nurses who attended the meeting. He said the material was distributed as a precautionary measure and is not a signal that the nurses intend to strike.

The central issues in the contract dispute revolve around wages, including step increases and a proposal by the hospital to institute what is known as mandatory call in lieu of work, when nurses would be sent home and be placed on call at a rate of $8 an hour (a third of the regular hourly rate) if they were not needed during a regular shift. Mr. Lambos said the on-call system would result in a dramatic pay cut for nurses.

Currently the hospital uses a voluntary call system, where nurses volunteer to go home or float to another unit when they are not needed.

"If we go to a mandatory system, nurses are in danger of losing the basic right to a guaranteed income and guaranteed hours of work," said Mr. Lambos. He said the mandatory call system also flies in the face of management's expressed plan to recruit more nurses to the Vineyard hospital.

There is currently a shortage of nurses nationwide.

"Hospital management must have forgotten that," Mr. Lambos said.

Step increases are also a bone of contention. Four years ago the nurses agreed to a temporary freeze on step increases because the hospital was in bankruptcy. Now they say Mr. Burchill wants to make the freeze permanent - but that was never part of the agreement.

Mr. Burchill has said the hospital wants to replace a system of salary and step increases with what is known as a clinical ladder, where nurses are rewarded for clinical advancement with extra pay. But Mr. Lambos said the clinical ladder has been in discussion with a committee of nurses and managers for the better part of a year and is still a long way from completion. He also said a clinical ladder does not replace the traditional system of salary and step increases.

"If we did do the clinical ladder it would be a supplement," he said. The nurses said clinical ladders are not commonly used in union settings - but they said there is now a strong undercurrent that hospital management wants to eliminate the nurses' union.

Mr. Burchill was unavailable for comment yesterday, but hospital spokesman Maia Gaillard criticized the nurses for the decision to distribute leaflets at the Saturday football game.

"We feel this is a very inappropriate venue for the nurses to air their issues. To put hospital issues at a community event such as a football game is very inappropriate. Kids and families - that's what this should be about, not about union disputes at the hospital," she said.

Nurses said Mr. Burchill has brought a set of tactics to the negotiating table that are unorthodox and disrespectful.

They said at the outset he tried to gut their contract by introducing some 61 proposals, while by contrast the nurses have only about 12 proposals on the table.

Ms. VanLandingham said the absence of an extended contract has added to the tension.

"I think people are concerned. This is the first time in any process that we can remember when we have gone beyond the contract date and there has been no agreement to extend the contract," she said.

Mr. Lambos said the threat to the status quo for nursing care is real.

"The potential to lose quality care is very great," he said.

"We are a part of the community. We're all in this together," said Ms. Larsen.

Concluded Mr. Lambos: "The hospital isn't a building. It's the people who are in it."