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With outcome of bargaining uncertain, local nurses practice for a strike

After going nearly a year without a contract, some local nurses and their union continue to work on bargaining for a new agreement. But while representatives are at the table, others are practicing their picketing.

Scores of nurses emblazoned with bright red t-shirts marched and chanted outside St. Joseph Hospital in Cheektowaga on Tuesday. While members of their union’s bargaining committee continue talks with the Catholic Health System, these nurses were practicing for a strike that has yet to happen.

“What we’re trying to show Catholic Health and the community is that our fight has not been settled yet,” said Cori Gambini, president of CWA Local 1168, representing the nurses.

Gambini said a strike vote had been scheduled for earlier in the summer, but was postponed pending the outcome of bargaining. Issues like staffing, pay and benefits continue to be discussed, but Gambini said as long as what’s offered by Catholic Health fails to match what’s available at competing hospitals under the Kaleida Health system, the dispute will continue.

“The problems we’re having at the bargaining table and year round with them, every year with horrible labor relations is still going on,” Gambini said.

The nurses have been working without a contract since August 31, 2015. In a statement from Catholic health, the hospital said it has proposed a series of progressive step pay and annual wage increases, as well as improvements in pension funding and staffing.

CWA’s goal of attracting the community’s attention seems to have worked. Not only did scores of passing drivers honk their horns and wave in support on Tuesday – local leaders in government came out, too. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz visited the picket line and said he supports the nurses. Poloncarz said he’s also spoken to Catholic Health President and CEO Joseph McDonald, who he told, “It’s crunch time.”

“I explained to him this needs to get resolved because I do not want to see a strike at some of the major hospitals in our area,” said Poloncarz.

In conjunction with the practice strike, CWA also launched a paid radio ad campaign. Gambini said news coverage of the contract dispute has been "hit or miss."

"A lot of excitement, a lot of things going on. You'd think the news would cover it," said Gambini. "But they don't really do that great a job of doing that, so we have to resort to our message being paid to get out."

Poloncarz has offered his assistance to both the hospital and CWA. He said he wants to see the matter resolved in a way that works for both sides, but specifically addresses workers’ concerns. Poloncarz’s mother worked as a nurse at South Buffalo’s Mercy Hospital, which is part of the Catholic Health System.

“When it comes to issues like this, this is not your normal labor dispute,” said Poloncarz. “This is one that could have a direct detrimental impact to the people of Erie County. If the workers at Saint Joe’s, if the workers at Mercy, if the workers at Sister’s go on strike, that is going to have a negative impact on healthcare delivery in our community.”

In the event the nurses do choose to strike, McDonald told Poloncarz that contingencies are in place to address the shortage in staffing. Poloncarz said the County Health Department would also get involved to ensure appropriate emergency care.

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