Having recently partaken in a marathon federally-mediated negotiation with St. Joseph’s‑Tacoma, WSNA nurse and bargaining team member Matthew McGuire sat down for an interview with WSNA staff in order to describe the negotiating process, the highs and lows, and why he’s recommending the tentative agreement.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Wow, you had quite the night recently. Are you guys recovered yet?
We definitely knew we would be going into a marathon — these things are not negotiated quickly. You are making proposals, receiving proposals, giving background, looking at counterproposals… it’s not a process that can be quick, but we were committed to spending as much time as it took to have the full conversation and debate around each point in the contract. We were fighting for multiple different things, to be sure — staffing, retro pay, and wages. I think I got to bed at 0430, and had a commitment at 0800, but nothing we aren’t used to as nurses.
What’s it like to bargain for that long?
A lot of excitement in issuing proposals, boredom in waiting, excitement in getting proposals back, frustration in not getting what was asked for, focusing that frustration into something usable and constructive in issuing counters, and then back to excitement in working through that. It’s a very taxing process on an intellectual, emotional, and physical level. You’re pretty “on” that whole time.
It sounds like this was a very hard-fought negotiation. What were some of the highlights as far as what is being gained in this TA?
There was consensus on two issues I heard from everyone I spoke to in the bargaining unit: 1. Movement on staffing, and 2. Retro pay. I was actually very surprised by how much we gained on those two issues. We also had wins on wage increases.
Contract Ratification Vote
July 18, 2019
Noon‑3 p.m. — Lagerquist C
3:30 – 5:30 p.m. — Lagerquist C
6 – 9 p.m. — Lagerquist C
July 19, 2019
6 – 9 a.m. — Lagerquist C
10 a.m.-1 p.m. — Lagerquist C
2 – 4:30 p.m. — Lagerquist C
6 – 9 p.m. — Lagerquist A/B
The economic wins are very impressive compared to what I’ve seen in my experiences across the country. What was the most important victory there? I understand retro pay had been a sticking point.
We were very pleased with the victory for full retro pay, which St. Joe’s stated they have neverpaid before. The economic wins overall equate to about an extra $1200 compared to the last tentative agreement for a nurse making $70k a year, $1k of that within the first 3 months of the contract. That also equates to about $6,784 more than 2%/2%/2% raises, which seem to be pretty standard across the state. This is not chump change and if you look around at other facilities, our pay will be higher upon ratification.
Nurse staffing is a huge issue, not just in your facility but everywhere. How does the TA address that issue at St. Joes?
We were able to negotiate concrete changes to the contract that will be meaningful for safe staffing at St. Joes. Staffing plans are set by the staffing committee, which is governed by half staff nurses and half management. Without the meaningful language that this TA obtains, that committee is not able to be as effective as it could be. For example, the current TA adds : 1.) an agreement that all changes to the staffing plan (aka alternative staffing) in any unit will go back to the staffing committee for approval before going to CEO; and 2.) a commitment from the employer to endeavor to provide staffing levels for nurses to get breaks, provide staffing levels for nurses to use their PTO, refrain from assigning more patients than the staffing plan, and avoid assigning charge nurses to patient care duties.
This is all within the framework of an agreement that the facility works towards and strives to satisfy these conditions. However, they are not in our contract currently, which means that we can’t even grieve these issues — but we will be able to under the language in this tentative agreement. This is concrete progress.
As everyone knows, there really is no silver bullet when it comes to staffing. How can St. Joes nurses continue to be engaged and make a difference on this issue?
Right now, we are talking about a battle on unsafe staffing. The way we will win the war, though, goes far beyond the contract: it’s about staying engaged on the topic over time, through being active on the staffing committee, filling out ADO forms, working on a regulatory strategy to get the department of health and TJC to take a look at the issue. The degree to which we can effect change is on us to remain consistently engaged over time.
Presumably, the incentive pay win will positively impact staffing as well, right?
Absolutely. Of course, there will always be people who don’t pick up extra shifts, but I think the extra bump in pay may incentivize more picked up shifts and better staffing.
Why are you and the bargaining team recommending this tentative agreement?
I’m recommending this agreement because we won, not just symbolic wins, but solid, tangible gains on the three issues nurses identified as the most important. This TA gives us a strong contract that I have no reservations recommending. It provides us an important platform to keep organizing and keep fighting for our patients and the safe staffing they deserve.
The other side is what we must ask ourselves if we reject this contract. We must reconcile what we are hoping to achieve, and if we are willing to go on strike for that potential, with whether or not our fellow nurses are willing to go on strike for the same things. Strikes are risky propositions with potential unintended consequences, including real economic loss, especially in light of the fact that this TA gives us such a solid contract.
This is a strong contract and I’m willing to speak to that with anyone. I hope the bargaining unit at large agrees, but I’ll also be there with you if it doesn’t.
St. Joes nurses at this point are extremely engaged on the issues, more so than most units I’ve ever worked with. How will you all continue the momentum, even beyond after this bargaining cycle? How can nurses stay involved?
I’m very proud of how closely folks are tracking the issues and staying involved. We are working on putting together a document that includes the myriad of ways nurses can be involved beyond this, and nurses should definitely check that out and look at ways to get into the thick of things. Safety committees, staffing committees, ADO forms; staying engaged on these issues when talking with fellow nurses are all great ways to stay involved.
The WSNA members who have been working to have one-on-one conversations with their co-workers and giving nurses a chance to commit to a strike if necessary have clearly had a huge effect. How did you see the employer responding to the pressure they were facing from the WSNA membership?
The work of the RROs was amazing. We assessed the vast majority of nurses in the bargaining unit to see if they were ready to strike, which greatly strengthened our position going in to bargaining. We made management well aware of the consequences of not delivering a fair agreement to nurses.
Having been at the table, do you have any other insights or wisdom you’d like to share?
I cannot stress enough that our work is not done, even after the vote. The work must continue every day on our units. What will not help us is if we drop off of these issues after any contract is approved. If we continue to stay engaged, we will go into our next negotiations with an even stronger hand than we had at this last session, with a credible strike threat looming.
Congratulations on a very hard-fought victory, thank you for your hard work and advocacy at the table and beyond. Let’s keep fighting!