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JOAN VENNOCHI

Nurses strike at Tufts Medical Center must be avoided

Unionized nurses and their supporters walked a picket line around the whole of Baystate Franklin Medical Center on Monday, after management locked out the Massachusetts Nurses Association in anticipation of a previously announced one-day strike. MNA organizers are also considering a strike at Tufts Medical Center.
Unionized nurses and their supporters walked a picket line around the whole of Baystate Franklin Medical Center on Monday, after management locked out the Massachusetts Nurses Association in anticipation of a previously announced one-day strike. MNA organizers are also considering a strike at Tufts Medical Center. Dave Roback/The Republican

Everyone loves nurses. But we don’t have to love the tactics used by the union representing 1,200 nurses at Tufts Medical Center.

In an internal memo, a union organizer called for a strike date that would cause the hospital the most economic pain. On a Facebook page, union negotiators talk about coordinating work stoppage with the arrival of interns in order to cause the most chaos. Another poster warns that soon it won’t be safe to bring anyone there for care.

That’s bitter union medicine, applied not to a factory making parts but to a hospital treating people. And the Massachusetts Nursing Association stands by it, insisting that, after 14 months of unresolved contract negotiations, a tough brand of persuasion is needed to get what nurses deserve: better staffing, a fair retirement plan, and more competitive wages. “That is the point of a strike. To put pressure on an employer,” said MNA spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson. To show how dire staffing issues are, the union produced blast texts from Tufts Medical Center asking nurses to fill open shifts and holes in the schedule.

Tufts insists the $30 million package now on the table is all it can afford. “We tried hard to make the most generous offer we possibly can. In the industry we’re in right now, there are limits to what can be done,” said Tufts spokeswoman Brooke Tyson-Hynes. The threat of a strike now requires plans for replacement workers that already cost the hospital $1 million — money Tufts would rather put toward its own nurses, she said.

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Tufts concedes their nurses earn less than others — for example, the top scale at Tufts is $63.03 an hour, compared with $70.27 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The offer now on the table would reduce but not close the gap: as of October 2018, the top scale at Tufts would be $67.22 an hour versus $71.82 an hour at the Brigham. Yet, at the same time, the MNA says Tufts wants to cut the benefits package.

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My first instinct is to support nurses, their hard work, and general magnificence in dealing with the demands of patient pain and suffering. But this threat of a strike comes at a moment of great challenge to the health care industry. Several Boston-area hospitals are already losing money, and Trumpcare and cuts to National Institutes of Health funding threaten everyone’s bottom line. For the first six months of the current fiscal year, Tufts Medical Center showed a surplus of $5.3 million. However, according to Hynes, the system overall — (the hospital, doctors, and community network) lost $1.9 million. Tufts also cares for more MassHealth patients than competitors and is paid less for that. Yet it should also be noted that a Globe report on rising hospital salaries listed that of Tufts CEO Dr. Michael Wagner at $1 million last year; that’s lower than his fellow Boston hospital CEOs but still generous.

This dispute, which grows more sour by the day, seems headed for a strike unless someone gets the two sides talking again. On Monday, nurses at Baystate Franklin Medical Center, in Greenfield, walked off the job. That same day, talks broke off at Tufts, and the MNA shows no signs of backing down from its threat of a walk-out, which requires a 10-day notice under state law.

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A year ago, a version of this conflict played out at the Brigham, and a strike was averted only at the last minute. At the time, it was reported that Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston was instrumental in helping both sides reach a compromise. When that conflict was resolved, Walsh said, “Any interruption to patient care is too great to risk, and it was critically important to the hospital, workers, and patients that a strike be avoided.”

Those are exactly the stakes now at Tufts. Interrupting patient care is a risk that everyone, including the union, should work hard to avoid — stat.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.