Business

Post-strike, Tufts and nurses to resume contract talks

Tufts Medical Center nurses staged a one-day walkout on July 12.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File
Tufts Medical Center nurses staged a one-day walkout on July 12.

Officials from Tufts Medical Center and the union that represents its nurses will return to the bargaining table this week for the first time since tensions over negotiating a new contract culminated in a historic labor strike in mid-July.

Contract talks have been on hold since the one-day walkout of 1,200 union nurses, who were subsequently locked out of their jobs for four days. It was the first strike by nurses at a Boston hospital in more than 30 years.

The two sides are scheduled to be back to bargaining on Thursday, through a federal mediator, after a cooling-off period of more than six weeks. Two additional meetings are being planned for September.

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Both sides said they’re eager to get back to the table.

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“We’re excited it’s finally happening,” said Barbara Tiller, cochairwoman of the bargaining team for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, and a nurse at Tufts for 28 years.

“We will listen and work hard to find a resolution,” Rhonda Mann, a hospital spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “Tufts Medical Center is committed to staying at the table for as long as it takes to produce a contract that is fair to both our nurses and our organization.”

The nurses and management remain at odds over three key issues: wages, retirement benefits, and staffing levels. The strike put those issues in the spotlight as hundreds of nurses picketed outside the Boston hospital, joined at times by members of other labor unions, as well as by some Democratic politicians.

But it’s unclear whether the expensive and disruptive walkout will motivate both sides to now reach a quick agreement, or whether negotiations could drag on and again devolve into bitterness.

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Tufts nurses have been working under a contract that expired last summer but was extended to May. Nurses say they’re among the lowest paid in the city.

A plan to change retirement benefits also has been a point of contention. The hospital wants to move 341 longtime nurses from a pension plan to a defined-contribution retirement plan, similar to a 401(k). The union has argued that would force nurses to pay too much out of pocket for their retirement.

The union also wants Tufts to increase the number of nurses per shift.

“We are looking for improvement on all three of our issues,” Tiller said, “not just one.”

While the hospital sought to bring operations back to normal as soon as union nurses returned from the July strike and lockout, the work environment remains stressful, Tiller said, and “morale is down.”

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Tufts acknowledged that the past several weeks have been challenging, but credited nurses and other employees for staying committed to their work. “Since returning to work, our nurses haven’t missed a beat,” Mann said. “As always, we appreciate their dedication and professionalism.”

Before and during the strike and lockout, Tufts officials used sharper language to describe the union. Tufts’ chief executive, Dr. Michael Wagner, accused nurses of trying to “hold Tufts Medical Center hostage for more money — money that our organization simply does not have.”

Tufts, with 415 beds in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood, treats a large number of seriously ill children and adults, including many from low-income families. But its reimbursements from insurers are below those of its competitors, including hospitals owned by Partners HealthCare.

Tufts officials said they spent $5.6 million on the strike, less than the $6 million initially expected. That included the cost of hiring hundreds of temporary replacement nurses from a national staffing agency.

At the time, union officials accused Tufts of putting patients in danger by leaving them under the care of the temporary workers. Nurses won the support of local politicians, including Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a former labor union leader.

Tufts officials said they have stayed in touch with elected officials about the negotiations.

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey
@globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.