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Eastern Niagara Hospital nurses approve setting strike deadline

Registered nurses at Eastern Niagara Hospital's Lockport location have authorized their negotiators to set a strike deadline, their union announced Friday.

The nurses are members of Local 1199, Services Employees International Union, United Healthcare Workers East.

There was no indication from the union as to what date would be chosen for a strike.

The decision to ask the 125 members of the nurses union to vote to authorize a strike came after a nine-hour bargaining session Wednesday, at which, SEIU spokeswoman Franchelle C. Hart said, the sides "failed to make significant progress toward a settlement."

"While Eastern Niagara Hospital would also desire a prompt settlement with the nurses, setting a deadline of any sort is not helpful," hospital spokeswoman Carolyn Moore said in a prepared statement.

She added, "The hospital has been working diligently to come to an agreement that is equitable to both sides at the negotiating table."

Another negotiating session, which would be the 16th between the sides, has been scheduled for next Thursday. Bruce Popper, SEIU's chief negotiator, said no strike date will be set until after that meeting.

"There's a very high level of frustration," Popper said. "I regret we had to do that. This administration just won't move on major issues."

Balloting began at union meetings Thursday. Popper said about 60 percent of the nurses attended those meetings and the sentiment in favor of a strike deadline was "overwhelming." Remaining members will be polled over the next few days.

If there is a strike, it would be the second one in 10 years at the East Avenue hospital. The nurses, then represented by the United Professional Nurses Association, walked out for 35 days in 2001.

The issues include changes in the hospital's retirement plan, the cost of health insurance, wages, and future employment opportunities at the hospital's off-site locations, such as the planned new ambulatory surgery center on South Transit Road. Popper said the hospital wants that to be a nonunion facility.

Moore said, "It is not in our best interest to take steps that might undermine the future of the organization. We have a mission and a responsibility to meet the community's health care needs well into the future. In this economy, it is extremely challenging. We are committed to continuing the bargaining process in order to reach a settlement that will allow us to fulfill our mission for the long term."

According to the union, the hospital seeks to freeze future pension credit for nurses, in effect cutting their pensions. Current nurses with less than five years' experience never would see a pension, SEIU asserts. The hospital has refused to comment on its bargaining positions.

SEIU says the hospital also wants to reduce hours for critical care nurses, in effect cutting their pay, while making all nurses pay more of their health insurance premiums.

The nurses' contract ran out March 31 and has been extended from day to day. A federal mediator entered the talks in late May. The nurses conducted an informational picket outside the hospital July 12.