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VNS nurses overwhelmingly ratify two-year pact

nyt20100204_15a.jpgFederation of Nurses/UFT members voting on the contract, which featured a 2 percent wage increase and no givebacks.

With a resounding 99 percent of the membership voting to ratify in their largest vote turnout ever, Federation of Nurses/UFT members employed at the Visiting Nurse Service approved a new, two-year contract that came — during hard economic times with concession bargaining common — with wage raises, no givebacks and full employer pension-and-benefits funding.

The on-time contract with the home nursing agency was wrapped up on Jan. 28, four days before the Feb. 1 midnight expiration of its previous three-year pact.

It was also just days after the chapter sent the employer a 10-day strike notice.

“That strike notice got their attention and required us as a union to assess our bottom line,” Federation Special Representative Anne Goldman said. As nurses at a private entity, VNS-Federation members are not subject to state labor laws forbidding strikes.

“We went through tenacious and almost nonstop bargaining,” Goldman, who led the bargaining team, said at the Jan. 28 evening ratification meeting. “Our mandate from the members was ‘Don’t give back anything,’ and we didn’t.”

The goal, she said, was obtaining a comprehensive contract protecting members’ rights.

Cora Shillingford, VNS chapter leader, got a standing ovation from nurses at the meeting when she voiced what every bargainer knew: “This employer doesn’t yield unless they are challenged by a powerful force, in this case our union. Don’t think they’re your friends. We won this contract because we stuck together as a bargaining team. A lot of what we accomplished was because of you.”

What particularly angered union negotiators, Shillingford said, “was when they compared ours to other nurses’ union contracts. Those leaders failed their members. Their raises went into their benefits plan. We protected our plan and won raises, too.”

Asked what was her best negotiation moment, Shillingford said it was “when we explained to management that we nurses are the VNS, and that it’s about time they respected us, both nurses and per diems.”

Carmen Alvarez, a VNS referral service nurse and bargaining team member, said she “never doubted we’d get a settlement out of them. The question was: How good would it be? This one is good!”

Keeping benefits and working conditions won in the past meant bargainers had to repulse determined management demands to replace the members’ defined-benefit retirement plan with a costly defined-contribution plan. Their plan stayed intact.

In addition, VNS must pay the increased cost required to continue all existing health benefits, and nurses covered under another health plan that offers comparable benefits can now opt out in return for an annual $1,500 payment.

Among the contract provisions are a 2 percent raise for most nurses, including a 40-cent increase for those working per diem; an extension of tuition refund to cover any courses leading to a nursing bachelor’s degree or a master’s in seven specialized nursing categories; and mandated orientation for all nurses involved in infusion care [injection] services.

Also, management must ensure that infusion care nurses who are assigned to noninfusion visitors requiring skills the nurses themselves say they don’t have “cannot unreasonably be denied” the relevant training to perform the work, including joint visits, said Philip Lewis, an orientation nurse.

Lastly, nurses participating in the Telework Program, which VNS developed in 2007 to ease office crowding by allowing nurses to telecommute, will continue to receive every benefit going to those nurses who do not telecommute.

Was it a popular contract? Beside the lopsided “yes” vote, numerous nurses called it “great,” including Marilyn Ringel, who added that “maintaining our health benefits and getting a raise on top of it is terrific.”

Goldman proudly acknowledged the full support of the UFT due to the leadership of President Michael Mulgrew.

“We are extremely grateful for all the support and leadership we received during our negotiations,” she said.

She also thanked the bargaining team: “They did a fantastic job. It was an uphill battle with long hours, and I appreciate it.”

Next up for the Federation of Nurses is bargaining with Brooklyn’s Lutheran Medical Center, whose contract with the Federation expires at midnight on Feb. 28.

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