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Cambridge Hospital union files complaint

Nurses group alleges unfair labor practices during contract talks

By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / July 8, 2010

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The union representing nearly 400 registered nurses at Cambridge Hospital has lodged an unfair labor practice charge against the hospital owner, Cambridge Health Alliance, alleging its management refused to engage in good-faith bargaining over a new contract.

Negotiators for the Massachusetts Nurses Association rejected a “last and final’’ contract offer from Cambridge Health Alliance on June 24 because it contained a provision to cut retiree health benefits for most nurses by about 40 percent, union officials said. Shortly after that, management declared an impasse in negotiations, effectively putting the final contract offer into effect without union approval.

“This is egregious,’’ said David Schildmeier, spokesman for the union. “We were negotiating. We weren’t at an impasse. They came in and said: ‘This is our final offer. Take it or leave it.’ ’’

At a state Labor Relations Commission hearing scheduled for this morning in Boston, a union lawyer is expected to seek an injunction blocking Cambridge Health Alliance from implementing the contract offer. The union is arguing that state law compels parties to move to mediation and fact-finding before declaring an impasse.

Cambridge Health Alliance spokesman Doug Bailey said the health care provider negotiated in good faith. He said the reduction in retiree health benefits — which affects about 1,400 employees of Cambridge Hospital, including 320 nurses — was made necessary by an accounting change that would boost annual expenses by nearly $10 million.

Under a new mandate from the Government Accounting Standards Board, a private group that regulates bookkeeping at the organization, Cambridge Health Alliance will have to record future financial liabilities associated with retiree health benefits. Previously, it had to account for only the amount it paid each year.

Bailey said management notified employees of the proposed change in retiree benefits in January and told bargaining units it would have to be negotiated by the end of the fiscal year on June 30. The union did not agree to a negotiating date until April, then canceled it, he said, delaying the start of contract talks until May. Since then, the two sides have bargained for about 45 hours, he said.

Even when the union rejected Cambridge Health Alliance’s contract offer, management proposed returning to the negotiating table the following day, June 25, Bailey said. He said union negotiators declined, instead suggesting alternative dates later in the summer.

At the center of the dispute is a proposal to lower management contribution to retirees’ health benefits from 90 percent to 50 percent. Schildmeier said this will cause a financial hardship to Cambridge Hospital nurses who are counting on the benefit.

The reduced benefits affect only employees Cambridge Health Alliance inherited when it took over Cambridge Hospital, which was formerly run by the City of Cambridge. Those employees have remained on the city payroll, whereas new hires are on the alliance’s payroll. Former employees of the city-run hospital who retired by June 30 will not have to contribute more.

In a statement yesterday, Cambridge Health Alliance chief executive Dennis D. Keefe said the organization valued its nurses and appreciated their sacrifices. But if the health care provider did not reduce retiree benefits, Keefe said, it would have to cut more than 100 jobs to reap the savings needed to offset the accounting change.

“While we’re always willing to consider alternatives, we believed then and now that making this one modification was the best way to deal with an unenviable choice,’’ he said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.