Hospital, union negotiators make no progress

New London — The increasingly bitter standoff between Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and about 800 unionized nurses and technicians showed no sign of resolution after a seven-hour contract negotiating session ended Tuesday without progress toward an agreement.

In addition to continuing disagreement over the substance of the contract, the two parties also are disputing the other's willingness to schedule another round of talks.

L+M spokesman Michael O'Farrell said hospital representatives would return to the bargaining table at 10 a.m. today, while union officials said the hospital is being deliberately obstructionist because a known conflict at that time that makes it impossible for them to meet then. Greg Kotecki, lead negotiator for the AFT Connecticut unions that represent nurses and technicians, said he and the rest of the negotiating team have to be at the National Labor Relations Board office in Hartford at that time to give affidavits in a pending unfair labor practice case against the hospital. But he would be willing to meet at 6 p.m., he said.

As of Tuesday evening, it appeared the two parties would not meet again until Friday. On the sidewalk outside the hospital where union members have been picketing since Nov. 27, workers gathered to hear an update from Kotecki and the presidents of the registered nurses and the licensed practical nurses-technicians unions.

On Nov. 27, 11 days after the last contract expired, the union began a four-day strike. The hospital, however, refused to let the workers back in Saturday night, when the four days were up, saying they could not return until there was a contract deal. From 150 to 250 replacement nurses and technicians have been staffing the hospital since Nov. 27.

Kotecki repeated assertions that the hospital's latest offer essentially would lead to the elimination of more than half of the unionized LPN-technician jobs and up to 25 percent of registered nurses' jobs, as L+M transfers non-acute services out of the hospital to what it considers non-unionized affiliates.

"Your jobs are gone," he said, speaking from atop a lighted platform parked outside the main entrance to the hospital. "Who are they to take your job and move it down the street and not even offer you the job?"

The union said it is seeking contract language that would allow nurses and technicians to "follow the work" if their departments are transferred. It said it is willing to renegotiate wages and benefits of transferred jobs.

"This is a big fight," Kotecki said. "We've got to stay strong. It's going to be a long struggle."

The hospital contends that the union is exaggerating and mischaracterizing its plans. L+M President Bruce Cummings said Monday that the only active plan involves moving the Joslin Diabetes Clinic, which has no unionized staff, out of the hospital. The hospital does, however, want to maintain the flexibility to make future changes if needed, he said, so it cannot give the union job security guarantees for all workers. Contrary to the figures provided by the union, the hospital says its offer would protect 90 percent of registered nurses' jobs and more than 50 percent of LPN-technician jobs.

In a statement, O'Farrell said the hospital's negotiating team presented a new proposal Tuesday "in an attempt to move the needle in discussions.

"Unfortunately, the union's negotiating team was focused on one issue only — the notion of 'transferring work' from L+M to any of its affiliates," he said.

The hospital tried unsuccessfully to discuss other basic contract issues such as wages, benefits and the length of the contract, he said, but the union refused.

"There was no willingness at all to discuss any other contractual elements in an effort to make some progress," he said. "We value our employees, and we want them back. We hope to soon reach an agreement that is acceptable to both sides and allows that to happen. In order to do so, we need productive dialogue and a willingness to negotiate."

Matt O'Connor, spokesman for the union, was equally critical of the hospital in his statement. He said the hospital's last offer "demonstrates their intention to so dramatically change the community hospital that it will no longer be recognizable to the people of the greater New London region."

He said the hospital's intention is to stop providing certain vital health services, and characterized the administration's plans in stark terms.

"Our concern is that the corporation is trying to peel away 'profitable' services and move them away from our community hospital, leaving it to wither away," O'Connor said.

The two sides also are at odds over whether union members should be allowed to observe the negotiations. Union leaders said the sessions should be open, as they have been in the past, and several workers at the gathering Tuesday suggested a group gather outside the Best Western in Groton, where the sessions are taking place. O'Farrell said that having observers present "does not lead to as productive a situation as possible.

"Both sides need to be focused and ready to talk," he said.

j.benson@theday.com

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