Nurses at St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford, after three years of organizing and bargaining with management, now say they're close to a contract agreement, but there are key provisions that remain unresolved.

A solidarity rally to support the nurses bid for their first-ever contract was held Thursday afternoon at Buttonwood Park, near the intersection of State Road and Route 140.  The rally was sponsored by the Greater Southeastern Mass. Labor Council.

St. Luke's nurses were joined at the rally by members of labor unions in the region and local elected officials, urging hospital management to reach a fair settlement with the nurses union.

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Deb Falk, a nurse for 47 years at St. Luke's Hospital and a member of the negotiation committee, says there are three issues currently holding up a settlement: compensation, staffing, and benefits.

Falk says without fair compensation, nurses will continue to leave St, Luke's creating staffing shortages, and longer work days for the remaining nurses.  And she says its a situation that could effect patient care.  According to Falk, nurses are leaving "almost every week."

Jim Phillips / TSM

Nurse Karen Corbett, also a member of the negotiation's committee, says there are currently 120 nursing vacancies at St. Luke's.  She says the hospital keeps hiring nurses, but low pay and poor working conditions are driving them away.

Joe Markman, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Nurses Association accused St. Luke's management of low-balling the nurses union.  He said the goal of Thursday's rally is to pressure management to reach an agreement with the nurses.

Those on-hand for the rally were asked to call the President of Southcoast Health, the parent company of St. Luke's Hospital, and urge management to settle the contract. Negotiators for the nurses union say they've been told by a management attorney, they would like the dispute settled by January 1st.

Jim Phillips / TSM