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L+M looks ready to fight on

At one point during his testimony in a federal courtroom in Hartford Thursday, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital President Bruce Cummings made mention of a building the hospital bought recently for $2.5 million on "Howard Avenue" in New London.

I know Cummings has lived in New London for quite some time now, and we can all be excused if we confuse something as unimportant as the correct name of a street in the town where we live or work.

Still, it seemed like hearing a familiar tune with a bad note, the misnaming of a prominent city road. Hearing New London's Howard Street called Howard Avenue in a Hartford courtroom had a discordant twang to it.

I probably wouldn't have thought much about it, except that it seemed part of a larger pattern of dissonance, in the hospital's long and expensive fight with the union representing its nurses.

I wouldn't pretend to know the fine points of all the labor law being sorted out in the current National Labor Relations Board case against hospital management. Maybe the hospital is on firm legal ground, and the NLRB was wrong in its initial finding that the hospital violated federal labor law in moving jobs out of the hospital to non-union offices.

Indeed, the hospital is having its days in court. The administrative law judge hearing the case could rule in the hospital's favor. If he doesn't, according to the union, the hospital will take its case on appeal to the highest court that will hear it, as long as it takes.

Of course, it is also an expensive course to pursue, and it wasn't hard to forget that, seeing the Boston lawyer helping lead Cummings through his testimony Thursday, as assembled hospital executives and lawyers looked on.

The hospital's long lockout of union nurses, replacing them with highly paid freelancers from out of town, was also very expensive and part of the same fight with the union over many of the same issues.

Cummings and his big team of vice presidents, each paid in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, will still be collecting their paychecks, while some of the workers the union claims to be substituting for union members are making, the union says, as much as half of those they are replacing.

Bare-knuckle negotiating with unions is classic good management, a careful tending of costs and the bottom line. It is something you expect of big public corporations, which have a primary allegiance to stockholders.

But L+M's take-no-prisoners stance - the current case started with a NLRB ruling in favor of the union complaint - seems surprising for a community institution.

Even with its tens of millions stashed offshore, L+M is still a product of its community. Much of its vast invested wealth comes from generations of community giving. It doesn't pay property taxes in New London, not even on that new $2.5 million building on Howard Street.

As part of its legal pursuit to limit the reach of the nurses' union, L+M seems much more a corporate entity than a community institution. Indeed, the hospital has also butted heads with Connecticut's union-friendly governor and the mayor of the city where it was founded.

Whatever might be gained in a legal victory in this case, and one may be coming, the community has to worry about all the political goodwill that has been lost, maybe for a long time.

Somehow the new corporate face of an institution that used to be called Lawrence & Memorial Hospital, no clever plus sign in the name, feels odd, like the name Howard Avenue.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

David Collins


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