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L+M, union reach tentative agreement

By Judy Benson

Publication: theday.com

Published January 31. 2014 3:00PM   Updated February 01. 2014 8:51PM

New London — Weeks of acrimony between Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and the union representing about 800 nurses and technicians came to a sudden resolution Friday, when both sides announced a tentative agreement on a new contract and a federal labor law dispute.

A ratification vote on the agreement, which would cover the AFT Connecticut bargaining units for registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and technicians, will take place from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday. The hospital and the union scheduled a joint news conference for 6:30 p.m. Monday to announce the results.

Both sides agreed not to discuss details of the contract or the steps that led to the tentative agreement with the media until the news conference.

"We'll talk then about how we got to this point," hospital spokesman Mike O'Farrell said Friday afternoon. "The agreement encompasses both the issues before the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) and the collective bargaining agreement."

Nurses and technicians reached Friday afternoon said they are eager to find out the details.

"I'm excited, but I'm anxious to find out what it actually entails," said one technician, who asked to remain anonymous. She said the union and L+M invited staff to meetings over the weekend to learn about the agreement.

The tentative deal was announced after six weeks of near-silence on the contract impasse following the end of the three-week lockout of nurses and technicians on Dec. 18. The lockout came after a four-day strike by workers.

Leading up to and during the strike and lockout, both sides engaged in charged rhetoric. Media outlets and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and other state officials kept the public's attention on the dispute. It was the first strike and lockout in the history of the 101-year-old nonprofit hospital, the largest in southeastern Connecticut, and the first hospital strike in Connecticut in more than 25 years. During the lockout, L+M continued to operate with replacement nurses and technicians.

The agreement came as the third week of a hearing at the NLRB offices in Hartford ended. The central issue in both the hearing and the contract dispute was the union's contention that the hospital was violating labor law by eliminating union jobs in the process of relocating hospital-based outpatient services to affiliated nonunion physician practices in the community. The union was seeking "follow the work" protections in the new contract so that union workers could keep their jobs in any services transferred in the future.

Last week, Raymond Green, the administrative law judge in the NLRB case, urged L+M and the union to settle the case. He indicated that he would support an agreement pertaining to possible contract violations involving seven union workers who lost their jobs when the obstetrics and gynecology and outpatient mental health clinics were moved out of the hospital, but did not agree with the union that broader violations had occurred.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., preempted both the hospital and the union Friday in announcing the tentative agreement, issuing a statement about 10 minutes before the two sides released their joint statement.

"I commend the hospital and the workers' union for working together to achieve a mutually beneficial agreement — a victory for common sense and community," Blumenthal said in the statement. "I'm pleased this agreement will enable a longer-term path to fair, positive professional relationships. The ultimate beneficiaries will be the patients and people in Connecticut who will receive world-class medical care from dedicated, skilled professionals and cutting-edge facilities."

One technician, who did not support the strike and asked to remain anonymous, said she is "annoyed" that the tentative agreement was announced without providing the nurses and technicians with information about the terms. She said she was "blown away" by the suddenness of the announcement.

Since she and other nurses and technicians returned to work after the lockout, under the terms of the contract that expired Nov. 16, there has been a friendly atmosphere among workers regardless of whether they supported the union's decisions or not, she said.

"But with the management, there's definitely been a divide where there never was one before," she said.

One nurse who was strongly supportive of the union throughout the strike and lockout said she is taking a "wait and see" attitude about how she'll vote on the proposed agreement.

"I'll wait until Monday when I read what's in it," she said.

j.benson@theday.com

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