A sign in Kalispell supports Service Employees International Union members in their contract dispute with Logan Health. Credit: Justin Franz

A union representing 650 nurses at Kalispell’s Logan Health informed administrators last week that they will be walking off the job for three days starting June 1, alleging the hospital is not bargaining in good faith or paying nurses competitive wages compared to other Montana health care facilities. 

The strike notice comes after the nurses, represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare 1199NW, have tried to negotiate a new contract for more than a year and a half. The nurses first unionized in July 2019

“A strike is the last thing we want to do, but Logan Health has been unwilling to listen to our voices,” said Donna Nelson, a nurse and member of the union’s bargaining team. “We’re here for our patients, and that means taking action to hold Logan Health administration accountable to patient needs and to bargaining in good faith.” 

The union says that Logan Health — which until recently was called Kalispell Regional Healthcare — has not been properly staffing nursing units throughout the hospital in recent years, to the detriment of patient care. The union is proposing to reinstate a charge nurse on all units, establish a nurse staffing committee so that employees have a voice in staffing decisions, and to increase wages and benefits so the hospital can retain employees. The union said nurses at the Kalispell hospital are paid less compared to other facilities of similar size. 

“Our work caring for the Flathead Valley community is what makes Logan Health a great hospital. But if our wages stay behind every other major Montana hospital, many of us will have to find different work in order to support our families.”

Nurse and union member Sue Sweigart

Hospital officials have countered that they are bargaining in good faith, but that the union’s demands are “unrealistic.”. The Daily Inter Lake reported in February that nurses are asking for a 13% increase in base wages. In March, the hospital announced nearly $11 million in pay raises for all non-union employees. At that time it raised the minimum wage for non-clinical staff from $8.50 to $13 per hour, and for clinical staff to $14 per hour.

The union notes, however, that the hospital has spent millions in recent years on expansions and a corporate rebranding. In the last few years, it has opened a $40 million children’s hospital, expanded its reach beyond the Flathead Valley, and this year it is undergoing a rebranding from Kalispell Regional Healthcare to Logan Health, which hospital officials estimate will cost between $800,000 and $1 million

“Our work caring for the Flathead Valley community is what makes Logan Health a great hospital,” said Sue Sweigart, another nurse and bargaining team member. “But if our wages stay behind every other major Montana hospital, many of us will have to find different work in order to support our families.”

The union has also alleged that the hospital has engaged in “union-busting” activities, and nurses have reported being retaliated against by management. The union has filed multiple unfair labor practice charges in response. 

Prior to issuing the strike notice, the union had engaged in picketing and petition-gathering in an effort to raise awareness about their concerns. Yard signs proclaiming “We Support KRH Nurses” have also been popping up around the Flathead Valley. 

The union said it will continue to negotiate with hospital officials in the coming days in hopes of avoiding the work stoppage. 

In a statement emailed to media, Logan Health officials assured the public that if the union does go through with the strike, there will be enough staff to continue normal operations. 

“If in fact SEIU does force a strike and encourages abandonment of patients, we are prepared to continue operations and we have commitments from more than enough nurses who are willing to step in and care for them,” the hospital said. “Abandonment of patients is against our core values and we want to assure the community that we are here to care for them.”

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.