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Nurses' union will benefit all

06/30/03 12:00AM By Ellen David Friedman
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(Host) Commentator Ellen David Friedman believes that the recent unionization of the nurses at Fletcher Allen will benefit the entire community.

(Friedman) Sometimes a labor dispute can tear a community to pieces. But there are times when it serves as an unexpected catalyst and a great unifier. I think we've just seen this with the settlement of the first contract for the unionized nurses at Fletcher Allen hospital in Burlington. And a lot of credit is due, in many quarters, for using this moment to make positive history out of something seriously contentious.

It goes without saying that a strong contract settlement is always preferable to a strike. But the Fletcher Allen nurses had rather high standards for their first contract and an emerging resolve to strike if it proved necessary. There was good reason. The hospital had, for many of them, become a place of shaky confidence. While money and priorities were being badly - perhaps illegally - managed, nurses were on the front-line coping with short-staffing, with overwhelming patient loads, and with mandatory overtime that left them working to exhaustion. They were not shy to expose their concerns, and the community resonated with them.

The public already has its own worries about the health care system - particularly it's dizzying cost spiral - and the news coming from Fletcher Allen didn't tend to build confidence. Health care regulators and elected officials became alarmed. The Board of Trustees, having failed to properly oversee its administrators, resigned under public pressure. Then came significant staff lay-offs, suggestions of severe budget problems and finally news that six million dollars a month was needed from the hospital's operating budget to finish the Renaissance Project. In the middle of this dangerous mix, a contract impasse and resulting strike were easy to imagine.

Instead, on a day bathed in bright sunshine, with hundreds of nurses and their supporters gathered for a rally at the hospitals entrance came the news that thirty hours of negotiations had brought a settlement. Against a background of shouted encouragement and car horns of supportive motorists, the unions leaders did some unusual things. After honoring the nurses for their courage and solidarity, and thanking the community for its support they went on to thank management -- interim CEO Ed Colodny and Chief Nursing Officer Mary Botter -- and even invited them up to the podium, where they were greeted warmly by the nurses. It was a unique and a healing gesture.

But the real restorative power of this contract settlement is that it may rebuild damaged confidence in the hospital itself. By guaranteeing staffing ratios, by eliminating forced overtime for nurses, by allowing nurses to work within their specialty rather than having to float, it places a high priority on direct patient care. This is what the nurses wanted but it's also what we -- citizens, patients and families need too. This collective action, this hard and scary process of standing up for what's needed on the job, has here also brought our community a broader good.

I'm Ellen David Friedman.
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