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Kalispell nurses go back to the bargaining table

by JUSTIN FRANZ Montana Free Press
| June 17, 2021 7:05 AM

Two weeks after hundreds of hospital nurses walked off the job in Kalispell for three days over what they say are unfair labor practices, inadequate staffing and sub-par pay, union representatives and management at Logan Health met again on Tuesday in an effort to sort out their differences.

Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare 1199NW went on a three-day strike beginning June 1, after 18 months of contract negotiations fell apart. Approximately 650 nurses unionized at Logan Health, formerly Kalispell Regional Healthcare, in 2019, but since then they have been unable to come to terms on a contract.

The union says nurses in Kalispell are paid less than those at other Montana hospitals of similar size and that the hospital has made cuts to staffing without their input, and also accuses hospital management of trying to bust the union rather than sealing a deal with it. Hospital officials counter that staffing is more than adequate and that the demands for increased pay are “unrealistic.”

Nurses say while all of their demands are important, the pay is perhaps the most critical as housing prices continue to skyrocket in the Flathead Valley. The union maintains Logan Health cannot attract good nurses with current wages and alleges low pay is giving the hospital a high turnover rate. Hospital executives counter that the annual registered nurse turnover rate at Logan Health is 16%, while the national rate is 18.7%.

During the three-day strike from June 1 to 3, nurses picketed outside the hospital and held a public rally at Kalispell’s Depot Park. Julie Anderson is a registered nurse who has worked at Logan Health for nine years and is a member of the union’s negotiating team. Anderson said the rally showed the community supported its nurses and she believed that would help with talks. Both sides have met twice since the three-day strike, once on June 8 and again on Tuesday. Although negotiations went into the night, they were unable to come to terms before calling it quits.

“We’re making progress but it’s slow,” Anderson said during a break from talks.

Hospital officials on Wednesday declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations.

WHILE BOTH sides used heated rhetoric in the days ahead of the strike, Anderson said it felt like cooler heads were prevailing this week and she was hopeful a deal soon would be struck.

Meanwhile, a group of nurses at Logan Health called Nurses and Community Unite filed paperwork in late May with the National Labor Relations Board in an effort to break away from the union. Those nurses said SEIU was causing more problems than it was solving and they no longer wanted to be represented by it.

However, a review of the petition found that those nurses had not gathered enough signatures to sever ties and so they withdrew their petition, vowing to try again soon. The effort was a reminder that not all nurses had supported the unionization effort in 2019. The final vote then was 372 to unionize and 199 against. Some nurses also crossed the picket line during the strike to work alongside management nurses and traveling nurses brought in ahead of the walk-out.

Although both sides were able to find common ground on some minor issues, hospital management and union officials say they are still far apart on staffing and pay. A date has not yet been set for another round of negotiations.