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New London — While the union representing about 800 nurses and technicians declared victory in their three-week impasse with Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, rank-and-file workers on all sides of the issue universally said they are excited to return to work today, even as outstanding contract issues remain unresolved.
"I'm definitely looking forward to it," said Elizabeth Morrison, an MRI technician for the past 20 years, as she and about 300 of her fellow workers gathered at the Port 'N Starboard banquet hall at Ocean Beach Park for a pep rally and question-and-answer session with union officials Wednesday afternoon.
At L+M, administrators and managers were preparing for the departure of the replacement workers who have been caring for patients since Nov. 27 and the return of the regular staff, hospital spokesman Mike O'Farrell said. The hospital has been paying $64 to $100 per hour for the replacements, plus hotel and travel expenses.
"Things are underway to have as smooth a transition as possible," O'Farrell said.
Regular staff, who have been locked out since the end of a four-day strike, will return at 6:45 a.m. today, with instructions to report first to the conference room to have badges reactivated and receive other instructions. The hospital announced Tuesday it would unilaterally end the lockout after the two sides failed to reach a contract agreement after three days of marathon contract negotiations that began Saturday.
"I can't wait to be with patients again and get back my identity," said one longtime registered nurse, who asked to remain anonymous because she did not support the strike. "I just hope the rest of the negotiations go smoothly and cordially."
At the rally at Ocean Beach, union leaders said the three weeks of picketing and helping one another through the hardships of going without paychecks has only made the group stronger. The union is seeking "follow the work" language in the new three-year contract that would enable nurses and technicians to keep their jobs when non-acute-care departments are transferred to L+M affiliates outside the hospital. The hospital has maintained that it can only guarantee no job transfers for those in acute care areas, and that others laid off because of transfers would be eligible for severance pay, retraining and other benefits.
In its most recent offer, the hospital added a pledge that no non-acute-care departments would be transferred for one year, according to several nurses and technicians knowledgeable about the negotiations. That offer, however, was rejected by the union's negotiating team.
"Today we are here to claim victory for patients, victory for caregivers, for this community and all of you," said Stephanie Johnson, president of the bargaining unit that represents licensed practical nurses and technicians, prompting enthusiastic cheers and clapping from the audience.
Lisa D'Abrosca, president of the registered nurses bargaining unit, said the hospital's offer to pay full-time staff $1,000 and part-time staff $500 if a contract was ratified by Dec. 16 amounted to a bribe that did nothing to move nurses and technicians from their stance that "follow the work" guarantees are also crucial to good patient care.
"Eighteen days ago, the hospital drew a line in the sand, and last night, they tripped over it," she said.
Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio was among those who spoke at the rally. Finizio said he visited the picket line outside the hospital daily, and "every time, was amazed by the strength of the nurses and the technicians."
"You're fighting to keep our community hospital a true community hospital," he said.
Greg Kotecki, chief negotiator for the union, AFT Connecticut, said he believes the lockout was illegal and that workers will be awarded back pay and retroactive benefits for health insurance, which the hospital canceled when the lockout began. The union has filed a court injunction over the lockout. He also said that because of pending unfair labor practice charges over the hospital's previous transfers of the obstetrics and gynecology clinic and outpatient mental health services out of the hospital, the hospital will not be able to transfer additional services while the old contract is still in effect.
"We froze them out," he said.
He added that he believes the positions the hospital put forth during negotiations about possible future transfer of departments strengthen the union's case. The case is scheduled for a hearing at the National Labor Relations Board in Hartford on Jan. 14.
L+M's O'Farrell has said it imposed the lockout because of a union threat of intermittent strikes, and now takes the union "at their very public word" that that will not happen. Johnson and other union officials said no such threat was ever made, and that there are no plans for future strikes.
Kotecki added, however, that, "we would always reserve the right to strike if there are additional unfair labor practices. It's the only weapon a union has."
Not all happy with union
While the repercussions of the strike and lockout will not be fully tallied for months, the turmoil at L+M will have a negative effect on the financial condition of the hospital and the workers, who are still awaiting unemployment benefits. While many nurses and technicians support the union and believe the hardships they have endured were worth it, that feeling is not unanimous.
"All we got was three weeks of unpaid vacation that's put us in financial strife before the holidays," said one technician, who declined to give her name for fear of repercussions from fellow union members. She and others who asked to remain anonymous verified their employment at L+M by showing their identification badges.
Another technician said that while she is happy to return to work, she does not think the union or the workers can declare victory. They are returning under the old contract, which had none of the job protection benefits the union is seeking, to a hospital weakened by the financial strain of the strike and lockout that may leave them more vulnerable to layoffs, she said.
"I want to figure out how we can resign from the union, the legality of it," she said. "I don't feel the union has a life after this. The majority have been silent and unsure, but I want those people to realize that they aren't the only ones with a questioning attitude."
Another said she believed the union had done harm to the members and the hospital.
"I don't like that we tarnished the hospital's reputation," she said. "It's only going to hurt us when we have fewer patients and we have layoffs."
One of her fellow technicians said she believed a "mob mentality" prevailed within the union and at the picket lines outside the hospital, and that some who didn't support the actions are now afraid to go back to work.
"So many people are upset they (the union) did not give us a chance to vote (on a contract)," she said.
Kotecki, during the union rally, said negotiations never reached the point where a vote was possible.
"When we reach a tentative agreement, then we'll vote," he said.
One longtime nurse said she believes the hospital "had no choice" but to end the lockout, agreeing with the union that it was an illegal action.
"It was a combination of the public pressure and losing vast amounts of money," she said. "It caused needless harm. Nobody wins, the patients least of all."
She added, however, that she will be happy to return to work today.
Technician Mitch Ross was among workers who said they are proud to have stood up to the hospital.
"This is a huge victory for our patients and the entire community," he said. "I'm very proud of my co-workers for standing together and never giving up on what we believe in."
Unresolved issues about the new contract remain a significant challenge, he acknowledged.
"We have to look ahead to winning the next round, which is to fight for the future of our community hospital," he said.