The ongoing challenges and sacrifices brought about by the coronavirus pandemic have tested each of us in ways that might not have been imaginable just a year ago. Yet during this unprecedented time, we have learned that adversity can inspire new approaches to solving our common problems. We are encouraged to say that such is the case with the relationship between union and management at the Brattleboro Retreat.

To describe the Retreat’s union/management relationship over the past few years as “tense” would probably be an understatement. That said, it’s a credit to the people and parties involved that in spite of some well-publicized differences, we have maintained a dialogue and tried hard to appreciate the other side’s point of view.

We should also point out that even amidst the difficulties of the past few years, union and management have still been able to reach collective bargaining agreements, provide market adjusted wage increases (including a major wage adjustment in 2018 that brought Retreat in line with industry standards), and stand together successfully in the recent and continued fight to keep patients, staff, and others safe from COVID-19.

So, what has changed?

For starters, as a result of several existential threats that we’ve faced together, our hospital has changed. Yes, the cooperation of our state partners has been indispensable in stabilizing operations; but so too has the Retreat’s tenacious workforce. This includes union, non-union, and management employees who have remained dogged in the pursuit of our mission, convinced of our hospital’s important place in Vermont’s system of healthcare.

Over the past several months, leadership on both sides of the table have committed to more frequent, more frank, and more productive discussions about the issues that concern us most—patient and employee safety, fiscal responsibility, work/life balance, and accountability at all levels of the organization.

The Retreat’s future success depends in large part on rebuilding our workforce, which was significantly depleted by the pandemic as well as the hospital’s reorganization of programs, services, and a two-year initiative in which we streamlined and improved the clinical and administrative processes associated with our patient admissions process.

As we seek to turn a corner and build a path forward, we do so with the common understanding that the Retreat is indeed a special place. We love and respect this hospital and we all want to see it succeed.

It goes without saying that we want and need great employees who will help us rebuild our staff, and who will hopefully come to know and love the Retreat as we do. This is not to say that union and management are now in full agreement on every issue affecting our workplace. Labor relations are—and should be—an ongoing, back-and-forth dialogue.

The creation of a consistent process by which union and management can openly discuss the issues faced by each side, along with the empowerment of front line workers to have a say in decisions that directly affect them, is a huge and positive change here at the Retreat.

A new spirit of cooperation between union and management has now taken hold, and this is the model we believe will serve us best as we work together to solve the Retreat’s current and future challenges.

Both sides embrace this as a positive, and potentially transformative change. We are committed to maintaining and building on this spirit of cooperation, and to making it a permanent part of the work culture here at the Brattleboro Retreat.

Robert Smith is the President (Unit 2) of UNAP Local 5086. Louis Josephson is the President and CEO of the Brattleboro Retreat.

This commentary piece was published in the Brattleboro Commons on April 7,2021, in the Brattleboro Reformer on March 31, 2021, in the VT Digger on March 26, 2021, and in the Vermont Business Magazine on March 26, 2021.