New London — About 800 Lawrence + Memorial Hospital nurses and technicians will strike starting at 6 this morning, after contract negotiations broke down Tuesday and both sides prepared to stand their ground with increasingly stern tactics.
The strike will be the first at any Connecticut hospital in at least 25 years, and the first ever at the 101-year-old nonprofit institution, a major employer in the region with 2,600 workers.
"They left us with no other option," Greg Kotecki, field representative for AFT Connecticut, the union that represents registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and technicians, said at a 5 p.m. news conference at the union's offices about a block from the hospital. Talks ended around 4 p.m., after L+M representatives "refused to even make a counter-offer or continue to meet with us," Kotecki said.
Behind him were stacked dozens of freshly printed blue-and-white picket signs workers will be carrying outside the hospital today, and in front were about 50 union members, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and local NAACP chapter President Don Wilson.
Rhetoric has hardened on both sides leading up to the decision to strike, with each accusing the other of being unwilling to consider its proposals or engage in productive dialogue.
"As negotiations continued in recent days, it became increasingly apparent that union representatives were not prepared to negotiate in good faith," Bruce Cummings, president and chief executive officer of L+M, said in a statement. None of the hospital's proposals was ever put before the union membership for its consideration, he added.
L+M said it has brought in between 150 and 250 replacement nurses and technicians who will be on the job today, and sought to assure the public that it would continue to provide good care.
"While this development is disappointing, I would like to reassure our patients and communities that the hospital is functioning, and we remain focused on providing patient care," Cummings said.
The union said members would strike for four days, until 11 p.m. Saturday when workers would return to their jobs under the terms of the contract that expired Nov. 16. The hospital, however, said there would be a "lockout" of striking workers starting at 11 p.m. Saturday until a new contract is signed, because an on-again, off-again strike would be too disruptive.
In response, the union said it would attempt to escort workers back to their jobs after the four-day strike. It is seeking an injunction from the National Labor Relations Board to force the hospital to stop what the union considers an illegal lockout. L+M spokesman Mike O'Farrell said the hospital will have security in place "to monitor all situations."
"Workers will be welcome back when an agreement is reached," O'Farrell said.
The union does not have a strike fund, so striking workers will go without pay for the days they are out of work.
"It's going to be a hardship," union spokesman Matt O'Connor said.
O'Farrell said that while the number of replacement workers is far below the number of employees on strike, the hospital can operate with fewer workers because many of the striking workers are part-time. The hospital is curtailing some services, however, rescheduling elective surgeries that were to take place from today to Friday, closing two patient units and consolidating two others, O'Farrell said. In addition, no balloon angioplasty procedures will be done after 6 a.m. today until the striking workers are back on the job.
"We're managing our patient census in the safest way possible," O'Farrell said.
Dr. Robert Keltner, who was at the hospital Tuesday and is a former member of the L+M board of directors, said some patients have asked to be transferred to other hospitals.
"It's really disrupting," he said. "Even if this is settled, there's going to be a feeling of bad blood."
The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich received two L+M patients on Monday and is now accepting critical care and medical-surgical patients diverted from L+M, Backus spokesman Shawn Mawhiney said.
O'Farrell said that while the economic impact of the strike on the hospital is unclear, "obviously, it will be significant." The hospital, while celebrating recent significant achievements such as the opening of the cancer center, the purchase of The Westerly Hospital and its 100th anniversary, ended fiscal 2013 with its first negative operating margin in at least a decade.
O'Farrell said the rapidly changing health care landscape means the hospital cannot give all the workers the 100 percent job security guarantees they are seeking in a new, three-year contract. The hospital's last proposal to the union, he said, would have given job security guarantees to "90 percent of the RNs and 50 percent of the LPN-techs." There are about 540 registered nurses and 250 LPNs and technicians.
The union is seeking to prevent the hospital from transferring outpatient services to affiliates outside the main hospital without pledges that all unionized jobs would go with them. It has unfair labor practice charges pending against the hospital for previous transfers.
"We just want to be able to follow the work, if the services are moving," Lisa D'Abrosca, president of the registered nurses union, said.
In addition to pickets planned for today, the union also is planning a rally at noon on Friday outside the hospital's Montauk Avenue entrance.
O'Farrell said the state Department of Public Health has been kept apprised of the situation and the hospital's plans for maintaining patient care during the strike.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy issued a statement Tuesday afternoon stating that he was "extremely disappointed" about the strike at L+M. Earlier this fall, Malloy released a letter critical of recent decisions at L+M resulting in layoffs and program cuts.
"While it certainly takes two to negotiate, leadership at L+M have shown no desire to reach consensus, as evidenced by their behavior today," Malloy said. "To walk out on the last day with more than nine hours left (before the strike deadline) shows a blatant disregard for their employees and, equally important, the patients they care for."
"There is simply too much at stake," Malloy said. "Both sides need to get back to the table and work out their differences."
U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, also weighed in on the strike. In a joint statement released Tuesday evening, they urged the hospital and the union to resume efforts to reach an agreement "that offers fair compensation and job security to workers, while affording the hospital a means of maintaining financial stability."