Union official: L+M administrators said physicians opposed unionized offices

Hartford - The union representing workers at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital proposed a lower union wage scale for employees of hospital-affiliated physician practices compared to unionized hospital workers, but L+M administrators countered that "doctors who run the offices didn't want their offices to be unionized."

So said Harry Rodriguez, president of the bargaining unit that represents 756 health care workers, during testimony Friday at a National Labor Relations Board hearing over whether the hospital violated federal labor law when it moved two outpatient clinics out of the hospital to affiliated doctors' offices, and eliminated seven unionized positions in the process.

Rodriguez's account of events in 2012 and 2013 that culminated in the transfer of the obstetrics and gynecology clinic and the outpatient psychiatric clinic to private offices came during the fourth day of the NLRB hearing, which will resume next Wednesday. The conflict central to the NLRB case is also the crux of an ongoing dispute over a new contract with two other bargaining units that represent about 800 registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and technicians. An impasse over the "follow the work" guarantees the union is seeking in a new contract led to a strike and lockout over 3½ weeks in late fall.

Friday's hearing followed a day of testimony by L+M President and Chief Executive Officer Bruce Cummings Thursday. The session began 90 minutes behind schedule because attorneys for the hospital, NLRB and the union, AFT Connecticut, met to discuss a possible settlement of the case that had been encouraged by Judge Raymond Green on Thursday. But the parties were unable to reach an agreement. The judge had indicated he would support a limited settlement that applied to possible labor law violations pertaining to the seven workers, but would not favor a broader ruling that would automatically extend the union into all the affiliated practices, known as L+M Medical Group, L+M Physician Association or LMPA.

During his testimony, Rodriguez said his bargaining unit, which includes health unit coordinators, secretaries, patient care aides and other support staff, has lost 136 members due to layoffs and attrition since it formed in 2002 with 892 members. A health unit coordinator in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Rodriguez has worked at L+M since 1996, and became president of the bargaining unit in 2006. The union, he said, was concerned not only about jobs at the two clinics, but also about the hospital's possible plans to move other services out of the main hospital in New London and the Pequot Health Center in Groton to the affiliated practices, including the infectious disease clinic, occupational health and employee health clinics and the sleep lab, eliminating union jobs in the process. In 2011, he said, his son worked on behalf of the union for "two or three days" to try to organize workers at the physician practices, which remain nonunion.

Rick Concepcion, the attorney arguing the case for the NLRB, asked Rodriguez what hospital administrators said when the union questioned the clinic transfers and the elimination of the seven jobs without bargaining the changes with the union.

"They said they felt they could do that under the contract," he said, adding that he was initially given no further explanation. In response to a question from Peter Moser, attorney for L+M, Rodriguez said relations between the hospital and union have been "up and down, but mostly down" over his years as president.

At the conclusion of the hearing Friday, both Concepcion and Moser declined to comment on the progress of the case thus far, citing an agreement reached that morning not to discuss it with the media.

j.benson@theday.com

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