Nurses in Dubuque have approved their first-ever contract with a big hospital, and administrators reportedly are pleased with it, too. Union Representative Ann Gentil-Archer says the healthcare workers began the process in the fall of 2003, voting to have a union represent them. The Service Employees International Union began the bargaining process with FInley hospital in spring 2004. The union rep says sometimes it’s a slow and contentious process, but this one wasn’t out of the ordinary. “The average for a first contract is 18 months,” she says. SEIU Local 199 represents some 300 of the nurses at the hospital. Gentil-Archer says talks came to a standstill with an offer the hospital said was final, in May. Nurses voted down that contract, she says, because it had more concessions than they could accept. With that rejection, they allowed the bargaining team to send a strike notice to the Federal Mediation Service. Last week, a mediator had both sides come to the table. With the help of two mediators, they reached an agreement. That tentative contract was put before the nurses Monday of this week, and they overwhelmingly voted to approve it, avoiding the strike. While the contract includes benefits like a five and-a-half percent raise, the union representative says it established committees that will meet to solve the kind of problems that come up over and over. One, a labor-management committee, will bring together nurses and their managers to talk about issues like health and safety. Needle sticks, lifting heavy patients and other risks make nursing one of the most dangerous jobs, she says, and those health and safety issues will be a major topic for the new committee. Another committee will tackle ongoing headaches over staffing, scheduling, overtime and how to recruit new nurses. The first-ever contract between nurses and Finley Hospital is a one-year agreement.