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Baystate Franklin Medical Center nurses want to use arbitration to settle contract dispute; hospital not on board

About half of the hospital’s 200-plus nurses attended a membership meeting Tuesday and all but one voted to go through binding arbitration, said Mike Fadel, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

The vote indicates both a confidence in the union’s proposals and a desire to move on from the dispute, he said.

Hospital President Chuck Gijanto said Wednesday he was surprised and disappointed to learn of the union’s intentions. He insisted that the best way to reach agreement is through negotiations at the bargaining table.

“We do not believe that it’s in anyone’s best interests to have an outside arbitrator, who doesn’t know the community and may not understand all the issues in play, come in to decide a complex local issue for our nurses, our hospital and the people of Franklin County,” said Gijanto.

A federally appointed mediator has attended negotiation sessions for over a year, but the two sides have been unable to settle.

At the heart of the two-year debate is a dispute about overtime pay. If arbitration were to occur, the neutral party would either choose to continue the status quo of daily overtime bonus pay after eight hours or take up the hospital’s request to switch to an overtime after 40 hours a week model.

Factors such as industry standards and the employer’s financial standing would also factor into an arbitrator’s decision, according to the union.

“Arbitration is a tried and true process routinely used for resolving negotiations for firefighters, police and others,” said Linda Judd, a nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the local nurses union.

“On behalf of our community, we propose this as a way to bring these negotiations to a close,” she said. “We are confident in the reasonableness of our position, but in any event, we are willing to live with a neutral arbitrator’s ruling in order to bring negotiations to a conclusion.”

The two sides have met 38 times over the past two years, trying to renew a contract that expired in January 2012.

There have been a few attempts at compromises — the nurses proposed a task force to investigate the overtime problem and the hospital said it could delay the change in pay structure one year and offered ratification bonuses — but no resolution has been made.

When the hospital made its most recent proposal in June, it sent copies directly to all nurses. Gijanto said he wants the nurses to have an opportunity to vote internally on the offer, while local leaders on the bargaining unit said they were elected by their peers to represent the nurses’ interests.

This is currently the second year of the three-year contract the nurses and hospital are trying to write. Another new contract would be needed in January 2015.

Contract negotiations came to a head last October when the nurses waged a one-day strike against the hospital.

Since then, the union organized a community forum arguing for the preservation of local care at the hospital. Many Franklin County towns passed a resolution also calling for local care.

In July, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint based on two unfair labor practices charges filed by the Massachusetts Nurses Association against Baystate Franklin Medical Center.

In the charges, the union alleged that the hospital did not respond to an information request during negotiations and that administrators told employees not to speak of union activities in the hospital’s hallways, nurse’s stations and the cafeteria.

The labor relations board will interview both sides and investigate the charges further at an Oct. 2 hearing. Hospital officials say they’re confident in their positions on the charges and that the board will side with them.

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