Both sides were keeping a lid on details of a tentative labor agreement reached Tuesday between negotiators for Mount St. Mary's Hospital and Health Center and its nurses and medical technicians.
The tentative pact was reached around 7:30 a.m. after nearly 24 hours of negotiations, just moments before representatives of the Joint Commission for Accreditation of Health Care Organizations were to arrive at the hospital for a regular three-year review for the hospital's reaccreditation.
The details were being withheld by both sides until the 175 members of Local 1199 Upstate, Service Employees International Union, could be briefed by union leaders.
Three briefings and voting on ratification are set for today in the Knights of Columbus Hall on Third Street in Niagara Falls. The membership meetings were scheduled when union leaders said they would ask for a vote to strike or take some other job action on Friday if no settlement had been reached by today.
In a midmorning news conference, Angelo G. Calbone, hospital president and chief executive officer, said he is satisfied the three-year agreement would provide long-term stability, "which was important to us."
However, Larry Alcoff, chief negotiator for the union, said it was "a little more complicated" than a simple three-year pact.
In addition to the length of the contract, Calbone said the other major issues were wages and benefits and mandatory overtime.
There was some surprise that the settlement came so soon. Some union members said they didn't expect any movement until the last moment before the threatened Friday job action.
"We were able to achieve many, if not all, of the goals we set for ourselves in bargaining," Alcoff said. "Twenty-four hours earlier, I didn't think that was possible. Today I can tell you we reached an agreement our committee will feel proud to recommend to our members."
Alcoff said he believed the union members' "absolute willingness to struggle" was the determining factor in reaching a settlement. But he said there was "no question that (the joint commission) visit created additional pressure."
Calbone said the hospital felt "some significant time restraints" to get as much done on the negotiations as possible before the commission visit because the accreditation review is so time-consuming for staff.
He described the voluntary accreditation as an internal check and a way to communicate to the public "that we are holding ourselves against national standards and benchmarks."
One of those surprised by the timing was Elizabeth Birmingham, a registered nurse in the outpatient ambulatory surgery unit and a member of the union. Birmingham was relieved that the threat of the strike was over.
Relief was a word commonly used in the hospital Tuesday morning by employees from the top down, who said tensions had been mounting since the strike notice was given. She believes the membership will support the negotiating team's recommendations.
Birmingham, a 33-year hospital veteran, said she had never faced a strike before, but she was convinced the members would have approved one. That was difficult, she said, because many hospital employees are "self-supporting" and it would have been a hardship on them.
Calbone said he decided to bring in U.S. Nursing Corp., a Denver-based company that provides replacement nurses to hospitals hit by shortages because of strikes and disasters, in deference to patients and the employees who are not part of the union. The decision drew fire from the union, which questioned the credentials of the replacement nurses. There are 591 hospital employees who are not members of the unit and who would have been out of work had there been a shutdown.
Judy LaSota, a registered nurse and manager of the ambulatory surgery unit, said her son, a staff nurse, was prepared to strike also. She described the mounting tension as the strike deadline neared and the innate difficulty of co-workers being on opposite sides of a complex labor issue.
"I believe in what they're fighting for, but I'm management," LaSota said.
Pat and Glenn DeFazio of Niagara Falls, who were waiting for Glenn's father to have surgery, also were relieved. Pat DeFazio said many of the patients in the waiting room Tuesday morning expressed similar thoughts and said they were glad their surgeries were being done Tuesday and not Friday.
All Friday surgeries had been rescheduled, but Calbone said physicians would be notified that the schedule had been reopened if they wanted to plan procedures.
"This is the only hospital we will come to," said Pat DeFazio. "We wanted my father-in-law to have the best care. That's why we're here."
Marie McKean, who is expecting to give birth Thursday, also was happy there would be no strike, as were Angelo and Jennie Perna of the Town of Niagara. Mrs. Perna was in St. Mary's on Tuesday for presurgical procedures.