BRATTLEBORO -- Unionized employees at the Brattleboro Retreat have ratified the new contract, which the union and Retreat administration tentatively approved last week after months of tense negotiations.
The workers, represented by United Nurses and Allied Professional Local 5086, voted late Monday to approve the contract by a 110 to 9 vote.
"The most important thing right now is that the members voted to approve this contract by an overwhelming margin," said Jack Callaci, UNAP director of collective bargaining and organizing. "It speaks to the confidence the members have in their bargaining team."
Both sides say they are glad to have the contract negotiations behind them, but some terms of the contract point to the acrimonious negotiations, which included informational pickets and many late night bargaining sessions.
The new contract will only run through October 2013, a time period that Callaci called unusual.
The former contract expired in October and two sides agreed to a series of extensions as negotiations progressed.
According to Callaci, the Retreat was unwilling to commit to pay raises and benefits beyond 2013 and he said the union was unwilling to sign on to a longer term contract without concrete obligations on the Retreat's part.
The former contracts typically ran for three years.
"No doubt. It is a short duration," Callaci said. "But we were unable to get a commitment for a second or third year, and since we could not get that commitment we could not go to a longer contract. It would have been preferable to get a longer contract but it is what it is."
Peter Albert, Retreat senior vice president for government operations, said the psychiatric hospital did not want to commit to pay and benefits beyond 2013 largely due to the uncertainties surrounding health care.
Albert said it would be impossible to anticipate what health care costs might look like in the coming years so both sides agreed to the one-year contract.
"At one point we realized that health care is so unpredictable right now that it made it very complicated to anticipate those costs three years out," Albert said. "We did not want to get lost in that. The financial compensation, including the raises, is in line with local and regional expectations. It is fair to say that we are pleased with the agreement."
Because one of the major stumbling blocks during negotiations was coming to an agreement on staffing levels, the new contract includes a provision that would form a new committee that will look at staffing throughout the Retreat. The new committee, which includes union workers and administration staff, will make recommendations to Retreat CEO Rob Simpson.
The committee is expected to complete its work by June 1.
"We expect this committee to have a positive impact on staff and patient safety," said Albert. "Rather than getting bogged down with this during negotiations we decided this was a more efficient way to do this. It will keep everybody focused and moving forward. It is a good, positive step."
Albert also said that if the committee is able to come up with strategies that save money, up to 50 percent of those savings will be passed on to the staff.
Callaci says the members will find to relax over the holidays and then begin work on the committee.
Contract negotiations will start sometime next year.
"The contract did not settle issues of patient safety and staffing and quality. Those issues remain," said Callaci. "We still have serious differences but the most important thing now is to move forward. If the committee is not successful then we will be right back here negotiating a few months later."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org.