Temple Hospital nurses postponed their strike, but negotiations continue.
The union representing the nurses and allied-health professionals in the Temple University Health System notified Temple University Hospital last week of its intent to strike on Oct. 2. The intended strike was a result of unsuccessful contract negotiations between the union and TUH officials.
The strike was postponed, but according to union representatives, it has not been prevented.
“Today, our nurses are among the best paid in the region, with an average hourly rate of $39.80, which translates into more than $82,000 a year, and that’s without overtime, on-call and shift-differential pay,” said TUHS Director of Public Relations Rebecca Harmon. “Our final offer included a wage-adjustment scale for nurses of 0 percent in the first year, 2 percent in the second year, and 2 percent in the third year. Even without a wage increase this year, TUH nurses still set the highest wage levels in the market.”
In the union’s press release, union Director Bill Cruice said that Temple has misrepresented its financial situation by publicly projecting that it was losing money.
“Given their profitable status, Temple President Ann Weaver Hart is engaged in a reckless and irresponsible attack on the dedicated nursing and professional staff,” Cruice said.
However, Jerry Silberman, staff representive to the Temple nurses, said the issue was not an economic one.
“This is not about money,” he said. “What Temple is trying to do is eliminate the ability of nurses and professionals to have any control over their working conditions, and especially to eliminate their ability to advocate for their patients.”
Silberman expressed concerns about how Temple runs the hospital, which may lead to nurse and other professionals not being able to advocate for their patients.
“Because Temple is operating not as a hospital which provides medical care, but as a business which provides services to customers, they want us to agree that the customer is always right,” Silberman said. “Meaning that a person who may be very ill, may not even be totally oriented because of the stress that they’re under or the medications that they’re taking, that a nurse and a professional cannot exercise their obligation under their license or under their ethical responsibilities to do what’s best.”
Sandy Gomberg, interim CEO of TUH, said Cruice is wrong.
“Temple University Health System and Temple University Hospital are separate corporations and we have our own separate boards,” she said. “Dr. Hart as president of the university and the board of the university are not the folks responsible or involved in the negotiations.”
“We didn’t come into the contract with any major expectations of economic gain,” Silberman responded. “We do expect … garden variety increases. We are bargaining over that, but the position that Temple is taking which seems to us from all the way that they’ve been acting is to provoke a strike.”
Silberman added that any employer who provokes a strike in the case of a hospital is reckless.
Nursing staff members agree that it isn’t all about money.
“We have great wages and benefits, we know that,” said Maureen May, a registered nurse. “For me, and for most nurses, contract language is really most important. We work under conditions where we can’t advocate for our patients. Temple’s new language in the contract pretty much would stifle us.”
Gomberg said she blames the contract negotiation failures on a communication disconnect.
“Collective bargaining, which is what an employer does with a union … only deals with wages and benefits, health and welfare of the employee,” she explained. “So the only items that can be on the bargaining table are things like wages and salary, health benefits, vacation time and hours of work.”
Gomberg said that patient safety, care and quality are important to clinical staff but generally are not subject to collective bargaining.
Hours are a concern for nurses like May, who said that an issue at TUH is the 12- or eight-hour work day.
“We work 12-hour shifts, which is a great opportunity for us. It makes for a smoother transition in handling communication. That’s one of the big problems with medical errors, is when you hand off a patient assignment or when there is a handoff communication. It carries the risk of something going wrong,” May said.
May explained that Temple created a system with two 12-hour shifts and two eight-hour shifts, leaving a four-hour gap.
Future negotiations will take place on Oct. 12 and Oct. 15. Both Silberman and May said they foresee a strike.
“I think that unless Temple makes some very significant changes in their position, having to do with nurses’ and professionals’ rights to have a union and to advocate for their patients … a strike is more likely than not,” Silberman said.
May agreed. “I think it’s more than just benefits and wages. I do believe that we will strike,” she said.
Gomberg said their priority in the event of a strike is providing care to their patients.
TUH has a continuing operations plan so that if the nurses strike, they will bring in temporary staff members to replace the union members.
“The thing that is absolutely most important to me is that Temple University Hospital honors its [responsibility] to the community,” Gomberg said. “They’re still going to need to come here for care, even though a portion of our work force has decided to stop working.
“So we will take whatever actions are needed to make sure that the hospital continues to be open and that all of our services continue to be available.”
Valerie Rubinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.