A supporter staples a sign to be used during a nurses strike against Logan Health in Kalispell. Credit: Justin Franz

KALISPELL — Hundreds of nurses in Kalispell walked off the job Tuesday morning after contract negotiations between members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare 1199NW and management at Logan Health fell apart last week following 18 months of talks

The union representing 650 registered nurses at Logan Health, which until recently was called Kalispell Regional Healthcare, alleged that the hospital was not negotiating in good faith and that it was more interested in busting the union than in sealing a deal. Hospital officials reject that take and counter that the union’s demands for higher pay and more staffing are “unrealistic.”

On Monday night, a few dozen nurses and union supporters gathered at a Lutheran church not far from Logan Health to prepare signs for the picket line that was set to be organized the following morning. 

“I’m really sad that it has come to this,” said Merry Elerick-Larson, a registered nurse and union member. “I think it’s important to feel valued as an employee and I just don’t feel valued.”

Elerick-Larson said she believes the hospital needs to increase pay to retain nurses and keep pace with the cost of living, which is rapidly increasing in the Flathead Valley. Union leadership says Kalispell’s nurses are not paid as much as those at other Montana hospitals of similar size. The union also wants administrators to reinstate charge nurses in all areas of the hospital. 

While the union has claimed that the hospital is short-staffed at times, Logan officials counter that in many cases the local nurse-to-patient ratio is better than the national average. The nurses union has also raised concerns about a high turnover among their ranks, but the hospital again counters that by noting that the registered nurse turnover rate is 16%, while the national rate is 18.7%. 

Union officials have also accused the hospital of not negotiating in good faith and intimidating union members. Kim Paulsen, a nurse with 25 years experience, including five in Kalispell, said management threatened her after they found out she was talking to colleagues at work about the union. The union has filed multiple complaints against the hospital with the National Labor Relations Board alleging violation of labor laws.

“We have been intimidated and harassed,” Paulsen said. 

In a letter to employees, Logan Health CEO Dr. Craig Lambrecht alleged that it is the union that has created a hostile work environment and that union members have bullied colleagues who considered crossing the picket line to work during the strike. 

“I could not be more disappointed,” Lambrecht wrote in a letter to employees Tuesday. “Threatening texts and comments should never be part of a caregiver family nor should negative commentary be said during a patient’s treatment or be part of a patient’s experience. As such, I am calling on SEIU to cease fostering this type of behavior in any setting at KRH.”

As the hours ticked down to the June 1 deadline for the work stoppage, union members had little confidence that a deal would be made to prevent the strike. Last week, negotiators for both sides met for hours before management reportedly walked away from the table during the early morning hours of May 26. They told the union they would not meet again for two weeks, all but assuring the strike would happen. 

In the days leading up to the strike, hospital officials tried to assure the community that they have more than enough people to staff the hospital, noting that some nurses told management they would cross the picket line. 

The nurses at Logan Health first unionized in 2019, but not all employees supported the effort. The final vote was 372 to unionize and 199 against. On Tuesday morning, Logan Health officials also said some retired nurses had volunteered to return to work to help during the strike. Managers, physicians and nurse practitioners will also help fill gaps in staffing.

It’s unclear when both sides will meet again. In public, union and hospital officials say they are ready and willing to meet, but that the opposition is the problem. In a letter from Lambrecht to the union on May 27, he said his priority was dealing with the upcoming staff shortage due to the strike rather than putting another date on the calendar for bargaining. 

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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.