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Tense talks led to Brigham, nurses deal

Nurses embraced one another and celebrated before reporting to work early Monday at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.Massachusetts Nurses Association

Late Saturday, after months of tense negotiations and with a strike looming, it wasn’t disagreement on wages or benefits that kept Brigham and Women’s Hospital and its nurses union from nailing down a new contract. The final sticking point was a new patient-monitoring device that the Boston hospital wanted to deploy, and nurses wanted a say in how it would be used.

With help from Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who played the role of unofficial mediator throughout the weekend even though he was out of town, Brigham and the Massachusetts Nurses Association found a late-night compromise that averted what would have been the largest nurses strike ever in the state. Instead of a walkout, the nurses staged a walk-in, embracing one another and taking photos before reporting to work early Monday.


“I am certain that the mayor’s intervention turned the tide of this negotiation,” said Dr. Ron M. Walls, the Brigham’s chief operating officer. “He helped both sides understand how important reaching an agreement was, how important it was to the city.”

At 12:30 a.m. Sunday, the hospital and the union representing 3,300 nurses announced they had arrived at contract terms they each could live with. The hospital will get three years of labor peace, which officials said would provide needed stability. Nurses won wage concessions that were less than what they initially sought, but more than the Brigham had previously offered.

It was the culmination of almost 10 months of often contentious talks, including some 27 hours over Friday and Saturday, when Governor Charlie Baker, Senator Elizabeth Warren, state Attorney General Maura Healey, and businessman Jack Connors also worked to help prevent a potentially disruptive job action.

“We’re very relieved,” said Kelly Morgan, a nurse and vice chairwoman of the bargaining committee. “We’re feeling very satisfied with the agreement we reached. It benefits our patients tremendously. It benefits our nurses tremendously.”


The contract talks — with many highs and lows that had officials from both sides thinking they were close to a deal, only to see it fall apart — had grown more acrimonious in recent weeks. The union authorized a 24-hour strike, accusing the Brigham and Partners of disrespecting nurses. The hospital said it would lock out the union nurses for an additional four days.

Brigham and Women’s Healthcare President Elizabeth Nabel left a news conference on Friday.Timothy Tai for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Patients at the Brigham, one of the state’s busiest teaching hospitals, already have been affected. Hundreds either were transferred from the Brigham or had their appointments and procedures canceled so the hospital could scale down operations.

The Brigham, which hired 700 temporary workers to help care for patients in case of a strike, said it quickly would revert to normal operations.

Still, by Saturday afternoon, negotiators working in a federal mediator’s office near Downtown Crossing began feeling more confident that a deal was in sight, but it took hours to resolve the last sticking point concerning the mobile alarm systems — devices that alert nurses when a patient needs to be seen.

Walsh, who landed in Indianapolis on Friday for a national conference of mayors, was constantly on the phone, talking to Brigham chief executive Dr. Elizabeth G. Nabel, union executive director Julie Pinkham, and others.

Through about 35 phone calls, Walsh encouraged both sides to stay focused on finding common ground, at times advising on the weeds of the contract language around health insurance benefits.


“I offered advice on both sides,” the mayor said. “Brigham and Women’s is a very important institution in our city. It provides vital care to Bostonians and to so many people, and it was vital to get both sides to an agreement.”

The weekend drama also included a flurry of phone calls from Warren, Healey, Baker, and other elected officials, people involved with the talks said.

Also involved was Connors, the businessman and former chairman of the Brigham’s parent company, Partners HealthCare. Connors, who manned the phone from his house on Cape Cod, said he worked with Walsh to persuade both sides to stay at the bargaining table, even when tensions were high.

“I care about the place,” Connors said of the Brigham. “I didn’t want to see it shut down [for a strike].”

A Baker spokeswoman said the administration was “in constant communication with stakeholders during negotiations and is very pleased that an agreement has been reached.”

The dispute had centered on wages, benefits, and staffing levels. Hospital officials pointed to nurses’ pay — $106,000 a year on average — as proof that they value nurses. They called the union’s earlier demands for pay raises unreasonable, given the financial challenges facing the Brigham and all hospitals.

They also had disagreed with the union on nurse staffing levels, particularly in one unit where patients recover from thoracic procedures.

As recently as last week, a compromise seemed unlikely. The union and the hospital continued their sharp public exchanges, and hospital leaders questioned whether the union truly wanted to find a settlement, given that it had coordinated its planned strike in Boston with nursing strikes in Minneapolis and Los Angeles.


In the end, both sides were forced to make concessions in order to reach a deal. But hospital officials said they were pleased the contract will run three years — the nurses had sought a shorter agreement — and stays within a reasonable “financial framework.”

Union officials lauded the deal for its stronger staffing policies and measures to keep nurses safe on the job, which they sought after last year’s fatal shooting of a Brigham physician. The contract also gives newly hired Brigham nurses access to the same health plan offered to existing nurses, a policy the union had demanded.

Brigham nurses already receive 5 percent annual raises for their first 18 years on the job. The agreement gives a 2.5 percent increase to nurses at the top of the pay scale, and includes a 2 percent raise for all nurses over three years. The union’s last proposal sought a 4 percent raise over two years, while the hospital had offered no additional raise to nurses already receiving step increases.

On the final sticking point, both sides agreed on language that allows nurses to help set policies on the use of mobile alarm systems. The tentative deal must be approved by union members. A vote has not been scheduled.

There were hugs, cheers, and sighs of relief on both sides when the deal was signed over the weekend.


“It’s just amazing,” said Laurie Demeule, a member of the nurses’ bargaining committee. “We were so supported by the community, by our fellow union brothers and sisters, and the politicians who were helping us. It became an event. It became more than 3,300 nurses.”

Photos of the walk-in Monday

Massachusetts Nurses Association
Massachusetts Nurses Association

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.