By Tim Leeds
Nurses and Northern Montana Health Care have set two dates for contract negotiations - one with a federal mediator and one a week earlier.
Negotiations with a federal mediator are scheduled for Jan. 29-30, and the mediator has asked that the negotiators meet once before he arrives, on Jan. 24, a nurses union official said.
"It's possible we can make some headway," said Bob Ingram, chairman of Local No. 12 of the Montana Nurses Association.
Don Robinson, head negotiator for Northern Montana Health Care, said the hospital negotiating team will try to resolve the remaining conflicts at the Jan. 24 meeting. The hospital's concerns, including scheduling problems and costs of some of the nurses' proposals, haven't changed since the last meeting in November, he said.
The nurses have been working without a contract since Nov. 30. Although a strike is always a last resort in negotiations, the nurses have no intention of calling one at this point, Ingram said.
The local has voted to approve concerted action, which ultimately could lead to a strike vote, Montana Nursing Association labor relations specialist Raymond Berg said. But the interest now is just in raising support in the community, like putting up signs and contacting other unions, he added.
"Nobody wins in a strike. It's not good for anybody. We want to use the process and use the assistance of the federal mediator," Berg said.
Under federal law regulating health care, the nurses would have to give a 10-day notice before calling a strike.
Ingram said the mediator, who was asked by the union to help with negotiations in early December, asked the two sides to try to resolve some issues before he came in.
"It's my understanding that because of what the mediator felt was a large number of issues still on the table, he wanted us to resolve some of the issues," Ingram said.
The nurses presented the hospital with 28 proposals in mid-August. After meetings in late October and early December, the two sides have tentatively agreed on four, he said.
"Which theoretically leaves 24 still on the table," Ingram said.
The two sides seemed to be making headway during their November meeting, Ingram said, but then hit some snags in the negotiations. He declined to comment on particulars.
Robinson, who couldn't attend the last meeting, said the hospital has responded to the nurses' proposals. Northern presented a counterproposal to some and rejected the others in favor of keeping the language the same as it was in the last contract, he said.
Mediators usually enter negotiations when there are a couple of key issues the sides can't resolve, which is apparently why the mediator asked for the earlier meeting, Ingram said.
But the 24 proposals really boil down to different aspects of just a couple of issues, including wages, he said.
"That's always an issue. In any negotiations it's usually a major issue," Ingram said.
The issue of wages at the health care organization is mainly one of recruitment and retention, he said. It's difficult to get experienced workers to come to Havre and and stay when the hospital, clinic and care center are some of the lowest-paying in the state, he added.
That makes it especially difficult to attract nurses during the current nationwide nursing shortage, he added.
Berg has said Havre's hospital pays the lowest wages of the 13 hospitals in the state where the union represents nurses.
The local respresents about 100 of the 150 nurses employed by Northern Montana Health Care.
Northern Montana Health Care pays $12.81, $4.07 an hour less than average in the union, for starting registered nurses, according to the union.
Northern pays $16.71 an hour for a registered nurse with 20 years of experience, while other union hospitals pay as much as $22.22 an hour, $5.51 more, the union said.
Ingram said some nonunion hospitals also pay more than Northern. Some hospitals are offering signing bonuses and paying for moving expenses if nurses will start working for them, he added.
"This is not for ourselves. It's for retention and recruitment. Without addressing fair market value, you won't address retention and recruitment," he said.