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January 11, 2012

Nurses union, hospital firm trade barbs

A labor dispute between a statewide nurses union and a multi-headed private investment firm has chilled the working atmosphere at 10 hospitals throughout the state, including Merrimack Valley Hospital, as the two sides trade accusations.

Steward Health Care, the health care affiliate of New York investment firm Cerberus Capital Management, has caught the ire of the 2,300 member Massachusetts Nurses Association.

The nurses union, which has over 100 members at Merrimack Valley Hospital, says the for-profit health organization has put the staff's livelihood and patient lives at risk through cost-cutting measures, such as consolidating hospital staff, closing services and actively discouraging union participation.

The MNA also says Steward has failed to honor pension contracts it entered with nurses unions when purchasing hospitals throughout Massachusetts last year.

"What we should get has already been signed," said David Schildmeier, spokesman for the MNA. "It never happened."

Steward dismisses the union's allegations and accuses the group of trying to deceive the public in pursuit of its own agenda.

The pension dispute currently focuses on four hospitals in the Boston area formerly owned by Catholic non-profit Caritas Christi Health Care, but Schildmeier said the overarching concerns have reached other local hospitals such as Merrimack Valley and Holy Family Hospital in Methuen.

Nurses from the Merrimack Valley and other Steward hospitals statewide joined together in New York City in December to protest Cerberus itself. Employees from both Merrimack Valley and Holy Family were quoted saying they feared the for-profit model of Steward.

The 500-member protest featured an inflatable model of Cerberus — the multi-headed hell hound that guards the gates of the underworld in Greek and Roman mythology — gnashing its teeth on nurses' caps. The protest was supported in part by the Occupy Wall Street movement. The MNA represents 139 nurses at Merrimack Valley and 351 at Holy Family.

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