Union leaders, including Julie MacMillan, center, cross the street to make their announcement.
Updated at 6 p.m.
An overwhelming majority of the University of Vermont Medical Center’s nurses voted to authorize their union's bargaining committee to call for a two-day strike if its demands are not met when the nurses' contract runs out July 9.
Dozens of nurses gathered outside the hospital at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday for the vote result announcement. They cheered and clapped as union leaders came out of the hospital’s McClure Entrance and crossed the street to a picnic area in front of the building. Julie MacMillan, the union’s lead negotiator, announced the vote tally: 1,311 of the 1,800 union members voted, and 1,227 — 94 percent — said yes to a strike.
As the end of the nurses’ three-year contract comes comes ever closer, union negotiators have been playing hardball at the bargaining table. They have refused to meet with a national negotiator and have held press conferences and public demonstrations about what they say are public safety issues stemming from understaffing at the hospital.
The nurses claim low pay and high costs of living are preventing the hospital from retaining the number of nurses it needs to adequately care for patients. Eileen Whalen, hospital president and chief operating officer, estimated that the nurses’ average pay is $64,000 — less than the national average of $73,550 in 2017, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.
Nurses at Wednesday's announcement expressed concern that their counterparts across the lake at the University of Vermont Health Network in Plattsburgh, N.Y., make $2 an hour more than nurses in Burlington. In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Whalen said each local organization in the network has a unique mix of factors that determine salaries.
"There are very, very different factors in the New York market," she said. "It's a different state with different unions and different contracts."
Among the union's demands is a 13 percent across-the-board raise for registered nurses in the first year of the contract, and a 4.75 percent raise in the next two years, according to Deb Snell, the union vice president. The nurses also want a $15 minimum wage for all workers at the hospital.
Union members awaiting the vote count
MacMillan emphasized that the union does not want to strike and hopes to reach a resolution before the contract expires. She left the announcement for an 8 a.m. bargaining session, and said more sessions are scheduled for June 20, 21, 27 and 28, after which an all-member meeting will be called. The union will also host a town hall meeting on June 22.
Union leaders have refused to meet with a mediator until they feel they have reached an impasse. For now, there is too little common ground with the hospital, they said.
Union leaders such as Snell are also unhappy that hospital executives, including Whalen, have not met with negotiators face-to-face and have instead relied on lawyers and middlemen.
“She has not been part of this process; nurses in the hospital do not know what she looks like,” Snell, a registered nurse, said of Whalen. “They’ve never seen her before, and that’s true of a lot of upper management. They are not around to see what is actually happening on the floors, how physically exhausting this job can be … it can take a toll on you, and they are not there to see.”
Whalen said the hospital’s president being present at bargaining sessions is without precedent, adding that her job allows for many opportunities to meet with nurses.
During Wednesday's interview, Whalen called the discussion of a strike “premature.” She emphasized the hospital’s commitment to reaching an agreement during the next four bargaining sessions and said she was encouraged by progress made during negotiations Wednesday. Sharon Schroeder, a union spokesperson, confirmed steps were taken in a “positive direction,” but said the hospital had not budged on wages or enforceable staffing guidelines.
Despite her optimism, Whalen said the hospital engaged last week with an outside firm that will assist in planning for a strike and will provide workers if union nurses walk off the job. She also offered nurses who do not want to strike the opportunity to continue their work.