By Tim Leeds
After three negotiating sessions with little compromise, the local nurses union and Northern Montana Health Care tentatively agreed on a contract early Thursday in negotiations conducted by a federal mediator.
The tentative contract now goes to the members of the local for a vote.
The contract offers raises of about 8.8 percent in the first year and 6 percent in the second year for registered nurses at the hospital and long-term care center. It also would provide a raise of 9.2 percent the first year and 6 percent in the second for nurses working in doctors' offices.
The agreement also includes more generous sick day and personal leave time, said Bob Ingram, chairman of Local No. 12 of the Montana Nurses Association.
''Since 1986 this is the first contract we've negotiated where the nurses haven't lost anything,'' Ingram said. ''For the organization as a whole, this was a huge step in the right direction.''
The current wages for nurses at Northern Montana Health Care are the lowest at the 13 health care organizations at which the union represents nurses, union representatives said. Registered nurses at the hospital have a starting wage of $15.62 an hour, and nurses at the clinic have a starting wage of $12.81,
The raises in the first year would give nurses at the hospital a starting wage of about $16.99, and starting wages at the clinic of about $13.99.
The union has maintained that higher salaries were needed to attract and retain nurses during a nationwide nursing shortage.
''The hospital recognized that there's a tremendous nursing shortage and the name of the game is to keep your market position in terms of keeping your good nurses,'' said Don Robinson of Butte, a lawyer working as Northern's chief negotiator. ''It worked out well and I think both sides are really pleased.''
The union represents about 100 of the approximately 150 nurses employed by Northern Montana Health Care. The contract would apply to all of the nurses.
The nurses have been working without a contract since Nov. 30.
After meetings on Oct. 25 and Dec. 5, the two sides had reached tentative agreement on only four of 28 proposals made by the union. The local asked in December that a federal mediator be brought in.
The mediator, Andy Hall of Seattle, asked that the groups meet one more time to try to resolve some or all of the 24 issues still on the table before he came in.
The groups met last Friday, butRobinson said the union team left negotiations at 1:30 p.m., telling the hospital it wouldn't continue negotiations until the mediator was present.
In a letter to the editor Tuesday, Bob Ingram, chair of Local No. 12 of the Montana Nurses Association, said it was the hospital's refusal to compromise on issues like sick leave that made the negotiating team decide to break off until the mediated sessions started Wednesday.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.