Brattleboro Retreat employees picket in front of the building Monday to protest contract talks. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Brattleboro Retreat employees picket in front of the building Monday to protest contract talks. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Tuesday November 13, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Talks between the Brattleboro Retreat and its unionized workers have not been going well, the union reports, and workers held an informational picket Monday to publicize the deteriorating climate at the bargaining table.

About 40 workers met on the Brattleboro Common Monday morning to hold signs and try to force the Retreat administration into reaching a deal with United Nurses and Allied Professionals Unit 2, which represents about 500 workers at the Retreat.

According to Jack Callaci, director of bargaining and organizing for UNAP, which is based in Providence, R.I., the two sides have been talking for two months, and the current contract expired in October.

There are talks scheduled for Tuesday, though Callaci said there were still a number of disagreements between the union and Retreat management.

"This union has represented the Retreat workers since 1992 and we have never seen these kinds of demands," Callaci said. "We are out here today to let the Retreat know we are serious and we want them to get real in the proposals they are making."

Callaci said the Retreat wants to reduce its contribution to pensions and make cuts to the number of workers administering patient care.

The psychiatric hospital also wants to force the workers to pick up any future increases in health insurance premiums, Callaci said, and tie pay increases to the hospital's financial stability.

"We view their proposals as extremely radical," said Callaci. "(Retreat President and CEO Rob) Simpson talks about quality and excellence but you can't expect quality and excellence when you are cutting the workers' pay and benefits."

Retreat Senior Vice President of Government Relations Peter Albert acknowledged Monday that the two sides are still far apart in their talks, though Albert said he hopes they will be able to move the process forward.

"The Retreat's management has great respect for our employees and staff and we are optimistic that our negotiations will lead to a fair and just settlement of the contract issues that separate us," Albert said. "We recognize their right to picket and to draw attention to the union's position. However, we believe that the way to a mutually agreeable contract is through good faith negotiations at the bargaining table."

Tom Flood, a mental health worker in the Retreat's residential program, has been working at the hospital for 19 years.

Flood said when the Retreat was facing tough economic times in the past the workers agreed to pay freezes and benefit cuts. Now that the organization has seen a few years of profit, Flood said the workers are frustrated and angry that the administration is suggesting further cuts in the benefits and pay.

"When the State Hospital patients came they asked us to work more and we did," Flood said. "The staff has been extremely dedicated and during this time of economic strength and growth it is really demoralizing to have them ask us to make concessions."

Albert said the Retreat is in stronger financial shape than it has been in the past, but at the same time he said the psychiatric hospital is trying to gird itself for looming changes to the health care system and an uncertain economic future.

According to Albert the union is seeking a 20-percent increase in wages over three years.

"We can appreciate that point of view, but the union's position is out of line with recent settlements in the region, prevailing wages in our area, and recent agreements in our industry," said Albert. "Even when we make a profit, it is still a very tiny margin. What they are asking for is beyond the level that the hospital can afford."

A federal mediator has been sitting in on the negotiations, though both sides say there has been very little progress made over the past few bargaining sessions.

Beth Kiendl has been at the Retreat since 1977 and says the recent negotiations have caused some of the worst conditions at the hospital she has seen among the staff.

Especially coming after the shaky financial reports, the State Hospital patients who have made a bigger demand on the staff, and the recent expansion of programs that have brought the Retreat national press, Kiendl says the workers are bitter that the administration is showing such little respect for the people who she says have been instrumental in helping the Retreat survive and prosper over the past few years.

"The staff here is dedicated to patient care. Over the past few years we have done everything that has been asked of us," Kiendl said. "We feel like there is a lack of respect for what we do. It is sad, really."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.