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Union-building fuels L+M hospital strike

By BRUCE CUMMINGS

Publication: The Day

Published November 30. 2013 4:00AM

Note: The Day received this commentary before the announcement of talks renewing Friday night.

It is important for the community to know that when Lawrence + Memorial Hospital put a new proposal on the table Nov. 26 for an offer of final and binding arbitration to settle our dispute with the union, the union came back with virtually no change in its position and said "no." At that point it was clear that the union representatives wanted only to strike and the federal mediator called it a day. At that juncture - and only then - did L+M withdraw from the table.

It was disappointing because, in leaving the bargaining table without an agreement or even the prospect of an agreement, we sadly recognized that the union representatives' preference was for self-serving theatrics, verbal abuse and misinformation, rather than a genuine desire to serve their members and keep them on the job.

The federal mediator requested that the parties meet again and the hospital agreed to do so, with the hope that the union representatives will act professionally and respond constructively to the hospital's latest proposal.

The L+M administration wishes it could provide the air-tight job security for all employees that the union has demanded. Wouldn't everyone like absolute job security, especially in a health care industry that is experiencing such upheaval and uncertainty?

In our proposal, members of the two hospital-affiliated bargaining units representing registered nurses and licensed practical nurses/technicians, respectively, who provide hospital-based acute care services, would be protected from transfer to another portion of L+M Healthcare. Not only would we not transfer the hospital's acute care to another affiliate, under state Department of Public Health regulation, we could not do it.

Here's what transpired in recent months, despite the hospital administration's negotiating team's best efforts to avert a strike and resultant lockout that takes hundreds of our talented workers off the job during the holiday season:

The union's field agent came to me in April and threatened to "bury" L+M with a blizzard of grievances to the National Labor Relations Board if I didn't agree to his demands.

In short, he wanted us to commit that all jobs within our not-for-profit physician practice affiliate - Lawrence + Memorial Medical Group (LMMG) - automatically be enrolled in his union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). More union members means more money for the union. Unfortunately and incredibly, it is that goal of acquiring more members and their dues - not job security for its existing hospital RNs and LPNs/tech members - that appears to be driving the union reps' efforts.

Forget that the union has not been able to convince a majority of those same LMMG employees to even request a vote on whether to organize. Most of them simply do not want to be in a union. And who can blame them, as the AFT union representatives have repeatedly made disparaging accusations that the LMMG clinical and support staff are "less skilled" and are not providing "quality care." At L+M we respect our employees' wishes. We were not about to ignore the desire of the LMMG staff to remain non-union and to continue to support the physicians in the practices as they have been for years.

So, the union field rep followed through on his threat.

Numerous complaints to the NLRB followed, along with threats for intermittent strikes - a few days here, a few days there - usually around the holidays, which would have disrupted our ability to provide uninterrupted, high-quality health care for our patients. So much for the union reps' professed concern for our patients.

Meanwhile, just as promised by the AFT field representative, my management colleagues and I were subjected to weeks of verbal abuse and a personal smear campaign, highlighted by cartoonish ads, robo calls, and post cards, and accusations of lying, greed, disrespect of our employees and questionable handling of L+M finances.

We have preferred to remain on the high road and stick to the facts because they are on our side.

As well as our qualified replacement workers are doing and as satisfied as the patients are with the care they are receiving, we want our own employees back on the job as soon as possible. We have made numerous proposals to try to make that happen, not one of which has been presented to the union membership by their representatives.

Are they afraid their members would accept our proposals and return to work? Apart from diminished credibility for the union reps and their actions, wouldn't that be a good thing?

With talks resumed perhaps members of the RN and LPN/tech units will finally get a chance to vote directly on the hospital's comprehensive economic and job security proposal.

Bruce Cummings is the president and CEO of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

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