Published December 10. 2013 4:00AM Updated December 10. 2013 2:12PM
New London - Some mistrust hospital management. Others mistrust the union leadership.
Still others lean toward ambivalence about giving allegiance to either, feeling mostly like victims of a high-stakes power struggle who've been largely silenced by fear of retaliation from both the union and their employer, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.
"I don't want to be used by the union or by the hospital," one registered nurse said in an interview Monday. "We're like pawns playing out this scenario."
Over the last few days, six nurses and technicians representing a variety of viewpoints agreed to talk to The Day about the strike and lockout that began late last month, universally expressing sadness about the turn of events and longing to get back to the work they love - taking care of patients. They also have deep concern about the long-term cost to L+M and the community from the strike and lockout, as well as recent management actions they fear have weakened the main provider of health care along the southeastern Connecticut shoreline. Since the strike, the hospital has been staffed by 150 to 250 replacement workers earning $67 to $100 per hour, plus hotel and travel expenses.
"This is hurting the hospital financially, and there are hospitals that don't bounce back from things like that," said one longtime registered nurse.
After they showed their badges or other identification to verify employment at L+M, The Day agreed not to use their names. Only under those conditions, they said, would they feel safe speaking their minds.
"I felt like we were always a team, until a week before the strike," said one registered nurse. "That's when things got heated and started to get ugly."
A petition started by some nurses and technicians who didn't want the strike, she said, was effectively squelched by pressure from the union. She now believes that within the union, a core group of about 200 mostly senior nurses and technicians have been controlling the dynamic, leaving out some 600 others in the two bargaining units involved in the dispute who want less adversarial relations with the hospital. The two units are part of AFT Connecticut.
"We're missing 600 voices," she said.
Mostly, she just wants a chance to vote on a new contract. If given the chance to vote on the hospital's "last, best and final offer," put forward last week, she'd vote yes, she said, even though it doesn't provide the "follow the work" protections the union is holding out for. The union wants the hospital to pledge to let nurses and technicians move with their jobs if outpatient departments are moved out of the main hospital to L+M affiliates. L+M is offering to guarantee not to transfer jobs in acute care areas only, and would provide six special benefits and programs such as retraining and severance pay to any nurses and technicians displaced by future transfers.
"If I had to vote, even it if it would mean losing my job, I would vote yes," said the nurse, who described herself as mid-career. "That's just life. There are no guarantees."
In the union hall when members voted to authorize a strike, she said, she didn't feel like she could vote privately. Some of her colleagues didn't vote at all.
"To this day we still don't know how many voted 'no,'" she said. "I've continued asking questions to the union leaders, and they don't answer, or they get annoyed."
She believes many of the nurses and technicians were either misled or misunderstood the strike vote and the hospital's warnings of a lockout. They considered a strike threat to be a bargaining tool in negotiations but not a tactic they ever wanted or expected to use, and that L+M wouldn't or couldn't follow through with a lockout. She's been on the picket line, she said, but only because she fears the consequences for not showing up.
"I only went because we're obligated to," she said, recalling a colleague who she said was ostracized and undermined by pro-union co-workers and ultimately left L+M.
One of her fellow nurses, however, said the hospital administration is the side that can't be trusted. Over the past few years under the leadership of President and Chief Executive Officer Bruce Cummings, she said, L+M has "chinked away at front-line positions and services" while management has become top-heavy and overpaid. One of her colleagues talked about some "very costly decisions" about an electronic patient tracking system that was ultimately scrapped, and new outpatient services started then quickly discontinued.
"It seems like they're ruthlessly spending money and cutting services and laying people off to get us ready for a merger with Yale-New Haven, which is non-union," said the nurse critical of Cummings. "It just angers us every time we see a new vice president come in. Morale has been low for a number of years. We're making all the sacrifices and they're making all the money and hiring more vice presidents."
Union leaders, she believes, are serving the members well, both by keeping the lines of communication open and standing firm in fighting for the "follow the work" job protections.
"It's not about money," she said. "We're not trying to get rich, we just want to be able to follow the work. But they (the hospital administration) want to break the union. That's their agenda."
Under the "follow the work" guarantees the union is seeking, any union jobs transferred out of the hospital would remain union jobs in the affiliates. Efforts already begun to expand the union to the 270 workers currently employed at the affiliates could take on new momentum if that happened, she said, "but would that be a bad thing?" After all, she noted, those workers would be free to vote on whether to join or not.
If given the chance to vote on L+M's latest offer, she said, she'd vote no, even though it would mean more days on the picket line and the financial hardships that go along with that.
So, too, would one technician who said she has "no regrets" about walking out and picketing, even though it's put her personal financial situation in significant peril. Over the past year, she said, hospital management seemed to have an increasingly adversarial and punitive attitude toward nurses and technicians, "looking for reasons to write people up, and having us write protocol books of 'Procedures for Dummies,' like they were making it easier for (replacement workers) to come in."
"A lot of us started to feel bullied by management, but they were just making us stronger without realizing it," she said.
The technician said the risk of taking the hospital's latest offer is too high - 179 jobs by her count. That's the number of workers she figures could be laid off, based on the hospital's statements that their offer would protect 90 percent of registered nurses and about 50 percent of licensed practical nurses and technicians.
"That's too many people who would get laid off if they transfer jobs outside the hospital," she said. "They're not valuing my skills. There's no way they could replace what I know if they moved my job and not me."
Management concessions, she said, could go a long way toward quelling the anger that has been building among workers, and setting the stage for a contract the two sides can agree on.
But some of her colleagues think that too much damage has already been done and that holding out any longer will only worsen the long-term damage.
"The union keeps saying job security, job security, but the longer we stay out, the less job security we have," said one registered nurse, who said she is fundamentally against strikes of any kind by nurses.
The union leaders, she said, have not been forthcoming enough with specific information, preferring instead to answer with fiery rhetoric rather than with straightforward facts.
"I have a hard time with all of that," she said.
Given the chance to vote on the hospital's last offer, she said, she'd vote yes, and believes many of those who've been on the picket lines with her would, too.
"We're getting tired of this," she said.
Another nurse expressed similar sentiments.
"I do not think striking was a solution, and now I am even more convinced that's it's done nothing but heighten tension between everyone," she said. "Each side has valid points, but they've been presented with so much bias that I don't know who to trust. I feel like these past weeks, decisions have been made for me, despite my vote and beliefs. I want to be able to vote on a contract and get back to work."
Both sides, said another nurse, have been "egging each other on" throughout the weeks leading up to the strike and lockout, making it harder for rank-and file workers to speak their minds and ask questions. The union's stance, she said, has gotten L+M to sweeten its proposal, adding job training, severance and other benefits for laid off workers that weren't there originally.
"I can't say the union hasn't made a difference," she said. "But at this point, I'd vote for anything that would get us back to work."
When that does happen, though, she fears the "awful" atmosphere there before the strike will persist, so she's started looking for another job.
"I'm spending about an hour a day looking for another job, and then I go down to the picket line, even though my heart's not in it," she said.