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Years of experience bring change of view



Published: Mon, May 7, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



wHitting the picket lines was a tough decision, but the union president said nurses believe the safety of patients is at stake.

By CYNTHIA VINARSKY

VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER

Some people believe nurses shouldn't go on strike. That was Bonnie Lambert's view when she started her career as a registered nurse at Northside Medical Center 19 years ago.

Since then Lambert has experienced the rigors of 16-hour workdays. She said she's seen fellow nurses go without food or bathroom breaks for 12 hours at a stretch.

She's watched nurses who are mothers calling desperately for a baby sitter when a supervisor has forbidden them to go home to their children at the end of a work shift.

And she's worried about the patients, dependent upon exhausted, sleep-deprived, hungry nurses to make life-and-death decisions about their care.

Lambert has changed her mind about nurses' going on strike. As president of the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association, she's at the helm of a weeklong walkout by 771 Forum Health registered nurses.

Nurses have been on the picket lines since Tuesday at three Forum facilities -- Northside Medical Center and Tod Children's Hospital, both in Youngstown, and at Beeghly Medical Park in Boardman. Contract talks were scheduled today for the first time since the strike began.

Forum's Trumbull County hospitals and its Austintown Medical Center are not affected by the walkout.

Issues: The nurses say mandatory overtime and staffing are the main sticking points in the YGDNA's contract dispute with Forum. Negotiating teams for the two sides were set to meet this morning, their first session since the nurses walked out.

Lambert said the union is also fighting for health insurance for retired members and for the right to retire at an earlier age.

Financial issues also remain on the table. Forum's latest offer would have increased the nurses' $23 hourly rate by 3 percent each year of a three-year contract.

Lambert said she couldn't predict whether the union's bargaining unit would accept that salary offer if the mandatory overtime and staffing issues could be resolved. "I'm part of a team, so it's not my decision alone," she explained.

Biographical: Born and reared in Youngstown, the former Bonnie Fawcett graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1964. For years she was content to stay at home, the mother of five children and now a grandmother of seven.

She found her niche in the late 1970s when she and a friend started a home health-care business. They loved the work so much that both enrolled in the nursing program at Youngstown State University, graduating in 1982.

Lambert started out in the rehabilitation department at Northside Medical Center and worked in orthopedics and surgery before landing a spot in the hospital's labor and delivery ward.

Union involvement: Lambert said she joined the union when she was hired, but she didn't get involved in leadership until about three years ago when she decided to run for a position on the YGDNA board. "My husband listened to me for nine years," she said. "I used to come home complaining and he finally told me to do something or be quiet. I decided to do something."

A year ago she ran for the union's top job and won. Her main goals then were to see a change in Forum's mandatory overtime policy and improvements in its staffing levels, but she never thought the fight would become the driving force leading to a strike.

The nurses feel the community is behind them, she said. Supporters have showered them with food and cash donations, and people show their support by waving, honking and visiting the nurses on the picket lines. Still, they're eager to settle their contract and return to work.

"It was a tough decision to go out. I think every nurse that walked out the door that day had tears in their eyes," she said. "We just want to resolve this and get back to our patients."




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