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During negotiations with Cambridge Health Alliance, nurses feel unrecognized.

(Somerville Wire) – In January 2019, local nurses who are part of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) began negotiating with Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) to develop a fairer contract. While negotiations also took place in Cambridge and Everett, Somerville Hospital currently employs 60 MNA nurses. Last April, nurses picketed outside of the hospital, demanding that their rights be respected. On May 13, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution expressing solidarity with the nurses.

“During the pandemic, when this was going on, management was cheering and hanging up pictures, saying, ‘We think you’re terrific, and you’re our heroes,’” said MNA President Katie Murphy. “When they were saying that, I said, ‘And I know, when we go back to the table, you will forget who we were.’”

The last contract that the nurses worked under expired in 2018, but because they are a public sector, that previous contract continues to stay in force, while negotiations are underway. In the wake of the COVID outbreak, negotiations were put on a hiatus for six months, and meanwhile, unionized nurses continued to risk their lives by serving on the front lines of the pandemic. Now, they are bargaining with management on several key points. The nurses want paid retroactive pay increases for more experienced nurses. In addition, they would like to see pharmacy techs and physical therapists recognized as union eligible. Charge nurses, who coordinate hospital units and their fellow nurses, should not have patient assignments. According to Sheryl Cliggott, a Somerville Hospital nurse and member of the MNA bargaining team at the hospital, CHA is trying to merge paid sick leave with vacation time, and many long-serving nurses will lose their earned time off.

The last offer that the nurses heard from CHA was this past March, and Cliggott said that they did not make any compromises. Most likely, the next step will be to go into a fact-finding process that uses a mediator when both parties cannot reach a settlement. Lisa Valley-Shah, a nurse at CHA Somerville and co-chair of the Somerville Hospital Bargaining Unit, said that she would prefer not to have to take this step but anticipates that it could be helpful.

“I feel that fact-finding can be fair. [But] I hope that we don’t have to get there,” said Valley-Shah. “If we do have to get there, then they’ll see that we have given fair and decent proposals. We’ll meet somewhere in the middle, I’m hoping.”

The nurses, as essential workers, are not allowed to strike, but they are able to hold informational pickets. For this reason, they have been working to get a strong amount of public support and support from local politicians. Fact-finding is not binding, and both parties are allowed to reject the decision that the mediator comes to. If neither party is able to reach an agreement, said Valley-Shah, she would see the need to get legal counseling.

CHA offered a statement about their contract negotiations with MNA but declined to give an interview. In the statement, they called nurses “a highly valued part of our team” and said that they strive to be “an employer of choice, prioritizing fair wages and benefits for our employees.”

“Our recently offered last, best and final offer proposed wage increases, building on our already market competitive salaries, and a comprehensive earned time program (currently in place in all other aspects of CHA) for MNA nurses,” reads the statement. “We have also made substantial changes to our initial proposals in response to MNA requests. While we have committed to continuing our practice of not assigning patients to Charge Nurses so they can focus on oversight responsibilities, we must maintain flexibility for Charge Nurses to provide patient care when needed due to the highly dynamic nature of hospital care.”

A flyer from MNA addressed CHA’s claim of needing to give flexibility to charge nurses, explaining that, “CHA tends to use that flexibility to give charge nurses assignments that make it more difficult for nurses to properly do their job and keep patients safe.” It adds, “CHA must do better by its nurses and healthcare professionals.”

Councilor Will Mbah was a lead sponsor on the resolution that passed at the meeting on May 13. He said that he hopes the City Council’s support of MNA nurses will send a clear message to CHA, as negotiations move forward.

“In this society, I don’t understand why people have to fight for things that are basic,” said Mbah. “… When I went to the rally in Cambridge, [I saw that] people are fighting for just a fair contract. These are the same people that have put their lives at risk every day, working around the clock, to treat COVID patients, with no hesitation or concern for their well being. People have honored them, with all kinds of names. [But they have gone] from heroes to zeroes, as some people say.” He added, “This is about time that we recognize people who have saved lives.”

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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.

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