By MIKE FAHER
Frustrated by the lack of a new contract, University of Vermont Medical Center’s unionized nurses are trying a different tactic – applying financial pressure.
The union announced last week that its parent organization, AFT Vermont, is divesting its funds from New England Federal Credit Union because two hospital trustees also are credit union administrators.
Nurses would not release a specific dollar figure but confirmed that the union is withdrawing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the credit union as a way of “ratcheting up pressure” on UVM Medical Center’s board of trustees.
“We’ll be looking to change to another in-state credit union that shares the same values as our union and our members,” said Deb Snell, president of AFT Vermont. “What this is about is a union putting its foot down and saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”
In response, the credit union detailed its long-term support for nursing and UVM Medical Center. And John Dwyer Jr. – who is both the credit union’s chief executive officer and a hospital trustee – vowed not to get involved in the contract dispute.
“It is hard to understand how taking this step against a member-owned credit union helps the nurses achieve their goal,” Dwyer said.
The Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and UVM Medical Center administrators have been negotiating since late March but have been unable to reach agreement on a new contract governing about 1,800 nurses at the Burlington hospital.
Staffing and wages have been sticking points, and the two issues are closely related.
Union leaders say UVM Medical doesn’t pay enough to recruit and retain enough nurses, leaving the hospital chronically short-staffed. That has led directly to long waits for some patients seeking appointments, nurses contend.
Hospital leaders say their wage offer – a 13 percent raise over three years, as compared to the union’s 23 percent request – is “fair and competitive.” They also say UVM’s staff-vacancy rate is not unusual as hospitals statewide struggle to find nurses and doctors.
The union’s contract expired July 9, and nurses held a 48-hour strike that week. Talks since the strike have produced some minor agreements, but there’s apparently been no substantial progress toward a deal.
“We’re pretty much in the same place we were prior to the strike at this point,” Snell said.
UVM Medical administrators last week said their goal remains the same – “to address the concerns nurses have raised while also balancing our commitment to providing high quality, affordable health care in our community.” In a prepared statement, the hospital noted that two more bargaining sessions were scheduled for this week.
“We will be back at the table Monday and Tuesday with the assistance of a federal mediator, negotiating in good faith to reach a fair agreement,” the statement said.
But on Thursday morning, the focus was on New England Federal Credit Union’s Williston headquarters.
In addition to Dwyer’s dual role with the credit union and UVM Medical, union members noted that Kathleen “Scottie” Emery-Ginn serves on the credit union and hospital boards. Snell said they and other UVM Medical trustees “have failed to hold the hospital accountable for their actions.”
She pointed to a July 11 letter the union sent to hospital trustees, requesting a meeting to “discuss how we can work together to ensure that Vermonters receive the quality of care they deserve.”
Trustees’ chair Allie Stickney declined the invitation saying the board met with nurses in June and that “To meet directly with staff is to take management out of the equation, and that is not something we will do.”
Snell said it is “disappointing that the board of trustees of this hospital did not feel it was worth 10 minutes of their time to sit down with us.” As a result, she said, AFT Vermont will cease doing business with New England Federal Credit Union, which is the repository for dues paid by the union’s 5,000 members.
“This is not an attack on the credit union, on small businesses or any of the employees of the New England Federal Credit Union,” Snell said. “We want to do business with companies whose board members have the best interest of the community in mind.”
Credit union administrators countered that they are community-minded. The credit union – which operates a branch at UVM Medical Center – also has directly supported hospital initiatives and has handed out nearly 50 nursing scholarships, Dwyer said. “Honestly, I don’t know if there would be a stronger supporter of the hospital or for the staff of the hospital,” he said.