No winners in bitter L+M dispute

It is a good development for Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, its staff, patients and the community it serves that its nurses and health technicians will return today to the jobs they do so well. Unfortunately, the repercussions from the recent, bitter job dispute will linger in the form of damaged relationships, mistrust, a fiscally weaker hospital and a lowered public perception of this vital institution.

Given that things remain as they were when about 800 union members went on strike Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving, both sides should be doing some serious soul searching about the decisions made over the last three weeks. There is still no contract and no resolution of the central point of contention between labor and management - whether union jobs should follow services moved from the hospital to satellite clinics.

As of now, the two sides can resume talking while staff continues working. That could have been the case all along.

Instead, the two unions representing nurses and techs decided to make their point by calling a temporary four-day strike. The hospital administration, concerned about the prospects of intermittent strikes to follow - something that would be difficult if not impossible to deal with in terms of having replacement professionals ready - opted to lock out the union members. Union leaders say they never threatened repeated strikes, yet neither did they rule out future job actions. Contradictory statements from union members contributed to uncertainty about what might happen.

On Tuesday, L+M President and CEO Bruce Cummings announced the end of the lockout, beginning this morning. The labor dispute has financially drained the hospital. The cost of paying, housing and transporting replacement workers brought in from out of state had to be immense. Add to that revenue losses because of reduced medical services and the potential for fundraising to suffer, and it is easy to understand why L+M management ended the lockout.

This is not a victory for the unions, despite their assertions to the contrary. Union members, out of work three weeks, return with no new contract, no added job security and no pay increase. While the threat of a future strike remains, it is hard to imagine the emotionally and financially battered rank and file wanting to return to picket lines anytime soon.

The strike and lockout were the first in the 101-year history of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. No L+M labor dispute before it ever turned so nasty. Both sides spent too much time and too many resources demonizing the other and trying to win the public relations battle, rather than focusing on compromise.

Additionally, time was wasted debating seemingly trivial issues about ground rules for talks and who could attend.

While the labor unrest at L+M was uncommon in the degree of public acrimony, the pressures leading to it are familiar in today's health care environment. There is a national consensus that policy makers must find ways to rein in the spiraling increases in the cost of health care. This is reflected in the cost-cutting provisions of the Affordable Care Act and in efforts to reduce Medicare and Medicaid spending. Ironic, then, when those politicians who enacted these policies show up on the picket lines to express shock that they contributed to a labor dispute.

Hospitals will continue to go through acquisitions and mergers and provide more services at sites outside the traditional hospital setting. Mr. Cummings contends that given the rapid and unpredictable changes facing his hospital, it cannot agree to a contract that assures that union jobs, salaries and protections will move with services that are relocated to off-site clinics and that often involve new partnerships.

Union leadership also recognizes it has much at stake. It does not want cost cutting to come from lower pay and reduced benefits and, they argue, diminished quality care; outcomes they contend will result if they allow L+M to weaken organized labor's influence by displacing union jobs.

Meanwhile, both sides await a critical National Labor Relations Board decision. A NLRB administrative law judge will examine the hospital's decision to move its obstetrics and gynecology clinic, and outpatient psychiatric services, to the offices of doctors in the community under the Lawrence + Memorial Medical Group (LMMG) umbrella. Around the same time, L+M laid off 22 hospital employees. A labor complaint contends those jobs should have moved with the relocation. Further, workers in the clinics should be recognized as union members, the union claims. L+M disagrees, contending LMMG is a distinct entity.

While appeals on such complex matters could drag on for years, perhaps the two sides will find in the decision a path to compromise on this difficult issue.

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