Hundreds of nurses hit the picket line at UVM Medical Center

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Hundreds of nurses hit the picket line in Burlington Thursday, the result of failed negotiations between the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Union leaders describing the talks that have gone on for months as contentious at times.

"We will not be bullied. We are standing up for our rights, we are standing up for our membership and we are standing up for our patients and our community," said Julie MacMillan of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

Reporter Avery Powell: The union leadership described the talks last night as almost bullying. What can you say to that description?
UVM Medical Center President Eileen Whalen: I've heard that term a lot and, unfortunately, I think bullying is in the eye of the beholder. I've certainly heard from my staff that they've felt they've been bullied.

"For too many contracts and too many years, the hospital has been taking advantage of us in that sense and using that as a way to control us and eventually we have to say enough is enough," said Samira Lawson, a striking nurse.

The hospital has offered a 14 percent pay increase over a three-year period. This is 1 percent more than the offer they were sticking with for some time.

The union says it countered that offer with a total 22 percent increase. This is 2 percent less than what they originally asked for. Both of those offers include 2 percent annual step increases.

"So there's a point where we've put what we can on the table and that's the point we reached last night," Whalen said.

Both sides say they hope to get back to the negotiating table.

"So I would like to hope that by this week, early next week, even this weekend we can sit down again and have real discussions about what our concerns are," Lawson said.

"No one wants a strike. No one wanted this strike. We certainly don't want to repeat this performance," Whalen said. "So it will be in our best interest and in the interest of the union to get back to the table and make sure that we come together with a fair agreement."

There is a lot still on the table here, including a pretty large difference in offers. And if this two-day strike doesn't work, the union has the right to strike again if they don't get what they want.

Thursday evening, WCAX News learned from union leadership that the 22 percent offer they put on the table is not subject to future negotiations, so the offer that is actually on the table is 23 percent. So when they come back to the table, that will be where they start off. For now, the nurses will return Saturday under their old contract.

The hospital was open and functioning Thursday with the help of 600 replacement nurses. But they were not offering all medical services and many appointments and procedures were postponed until after the strike. WCAX News tried to speak with a number of patients and hospital visitors, but none were willing to comment.