Wrong to deny public L+M deal details

It is great news, certainly, that nurses and technicians have ratified a contract with Lawrence + Memorial Hospital that runs through June 30, 2016, ending the nastiest labor-management dispute in that institution's 101-year history.

Unfortunately, it also ends with a dissonant clang that leaves the public asking what happened and what was that all about?

During the midst of the labor dispute that saw the two unions representing nurses and technicians call a four-day strike in November, followed by a three-week management lockout, both sides sought public support.

"I am L+M" was the union slogan from AFT Locals 5049 and 5051. The message, "We are the people who care for our neighbors when they are in the hospital." Their only expectation, went the spin, was protection of their jobs and union standing (for the benefit of patients, of course) as the hospital moved more services to off-site facilities.

The hospital administration responded with its own public relations campaign. The hospital is facing fiscal pressures in a changing health care environment. It had always acted in good faith and followed the law in opening new venues to serve the public, went its message. The union demands were unreasonable.

The strategy was clear. Apply public pressure to weaken the opposing side's resolve in the bitter labor clash.

On Friday, guided by a labor judge's comments concerning the essential elements of the dispute, the two sides announced a tentative deal. Union members ratified the contract Monday.

Something funny happened, however, on the way to inking a contract. The public instantly became superfluous. The parties agreed not to share details of the agreement.

There are no legal obligations to provide that information. It is a contract between private parties. The secrecy is logical, in a cynical way. Now that the two parties are no longer fighting for the public's favor, why chance a debate over winners and losers that a public disclosure might invite?

Fundamentally, however, the clandestineness is insulting to a public that both sides urged to become emotionally invested in a dispute affecting one of its most important public institutions. Don't ask people to care and then tell them it is none of their business.

There are serious questions whether the strike and subsequent lockout were even necessary. The critical issue in the dispute was the union contention that the physician organization, L+M Medical Group, to which some former hospital services moved, was an entity of the hospital and that workers - laid off when those services moved - should have instead transferred to the new location, remaining as union members. Labor wanted "follow the work" language in the contract going forward, something the hospital said it could not impose on what it considered separate, outside entities.

At the time of the strike and lockout both sides knew an administrative hearing was pending on that very issue, involving an appeal of a National Labor Relations Board ruling.

So why not wait before striking?

It was during that hearing in late January, after employees had been allowed to return to work, that Administrative Law Judge Raymond Green indicated that labor law does not allow for automatic expansion of a union into a workplace just because it is affiliated with a unionized employer such as L+M Hospital.

He urged the parties to seek a settlement dealing with seven laid-off employees directly affected by job transfers. Given that guidance, both sides reached a deal. The strike, it appears, was a tactical mistake.

The two parties did release some information, while other aspects leaked out. While the union will not get the automatic union expansion it sought, the two sides did agree on the ground rules for any future attempt to organize "L+M Healthcare operating entities" - such as the L+M Medical Group, the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut and Westerly Hospital.

The union is withdrawing all labor complaints, including the claim the lockout was illegal, suggesting workers received some compensation for pay lost to the lockout. "Our negotiators reached an agreement they felt was appropriate for the circumstances," said AFT spokesman Matt O'Connor when asked if workers will get paid.

Also addressed, sources indicate, were the grievances of the seven workers displaced when their responsibilities moved outside the hospital.

"It's a clean slate. Our focus now is looking forward - not back," said L+M President and CEO Bruce Cummings.

That's convenient.

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