March 2016 Issue
March 29, 2016

Nurses go up against Goliath and gain morale-boosting contract wins

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Visiting nurses, all members of the Federation of Nurses, a UFT chapter, celebrate after voting to ratify a hard-fought contract.
Caption: Visiting nurses, all members of the Federation of Nurses, a UFT chapter, celebrate after voting to ratify a hard-fought contract. Miller Photography.

Whether you call it a welterweight or heavyweight bout, one clear winner emerged in Goliath vs. Goldman — the Federation of Nurses, a chapter of the United Federation of Teachers.

Nurse union negotiators recently secured two major contracts for their members, one for visiting nurses with a giant anti-union consulting firm, and the other, for hospital nurses, with a new, corporate employer.

Together with visiting nurses, lead union negotiator Anne Goldman took on Alvarez & Marsal, a consulting firm specializing in making massive profits while restructuring and reducing staff, benefits and entire programs, including school systems such as St. Louis and New Orleans. They have crippled unions throughout the country, Goldman said.

Facing daunting proposals, the FON/UFT contract negotiators held fast and obtained pay increases, secured pensions and covered health benefits for the visiting nurse members, who work in all five boroughs of New York City and two nearby regions.

"A small group of 2,000 nurses with the power of a union stood tall against management and a union-busting company," said Goldman, vice-president for non-Department of Education members of the UFT and chair of NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council. "We were able to overcome efforts to destroy us."

Next up was the 850-member FON/UFT chapter at New York University Lutheran Medical Center, where benefits, pension and staffing were secured in a new contract for hospital nurses that will improve staff-patient ratios. It is the first negotiation with the new hospital owner, NYU.

Both contracts were settled within 30 days of each other.

At the Visiting Nurse Service, Goldman said A&M tried to divide members with proposals that pitted single people against married people for health insurance changes; new hires vs. senior members in proposals about benefits; and by culturally differentiating people who are in America on visas vs. natural citizens.

"They used every opportunity to divide us ... It's pretty powerful and it usually works," Goldman said. Her strategy was to talk to members and educate them about what was happening.

"Education is the only way to organize and to succeed," she said. "When the younger nurse understands what the senior nurse needs, and when the one who's retiring cares about the future she's leaving for others, that's the only way unions are going to overcome."

She called negotiations "a real David and Goliath."

The VNS nurses will receive a 6 percent raise, in increments over the contract. The defined benefit pension plan, which A&M wanted gone, was held intact. Health insurance benefits were held at no premiums.

Raquel Webb-Geddes, an FON/ UFT chapter leader and member of the negotiations team, said negotiations were "grueling" and became "very contentious."

"The leadership of Anne Goldman and [UFT President] Mike Mulgrew, the power of the UFT and political allies," held them in good stead, she said. "It was a huge win and a huge relief. The contract is morale boosting."

Nurses at VNS have suffered losses in recent years after the company was suspended from the Medicaid Long Term Care Program in 2013 for improperly enrolling patients. The VNS was ordered to repay $33.6 million for fraudulent billing. The company laid off 275 nurses, followed by other layoffs.

The second contract settlement came at the Lutheran Medical Center, where nurses were negotiating with a new employer. NYU had taken over the hospital since the last contract. Negotiations came up hard against the calender. A notice to strike was filed 10 days before the previous contract expired, as is standard if an agreement has not been reached before the end of the contract.

Goldman again used education — this time to let the new employer know about the union and the nurses.

"They had to learn who we are and what we are about," said Renee Setteducato, chapter chairperson and Lutheran nurse. "They are a non-union entity that took over a hospital. We are at a professional level."

Setteducato said the contract was settled with benefits, pension and staffing as the three main victories. "We got a bunch of extra nurses who were absolutely needed, based on the activity and needs of the units and their functions," Setteducato said. "We reduced the nurse-patient ratio."

Raises of 6 percent, in increments, were negotiated for the duration of the two-year contract.

The Federation of Nurses/UFT represents about 5,000 nurses.