L+M workers did not know details of deal till they voted

New London - As Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and the union representing about 800 nurses and technicians vow to put aside their past adversarial relationship and more details of the contract approved last week are emerging, questions still linger among the rank-and-file.

"Nobody knew what was in the contract until you got there to vote," said one technician, who asked not to be named. "A lot of people are still upset about that."

One registered nurse, who also declined to give her name out of fear of retaliation, said the suddenness of the announcement that an agreement had been reached, coupled with limited communication about the details of the contract before the Feb. 3 vote, have left her and other nurses feeling "powerless."

"Neither side told us anything," she said. "We all feel like we can't trust anybody."

A snowstorm on the day of the vote prevented her and many others from being able to get to New London to cast their ballots, she said. Requests to postpone the vote were denied, she said. She and others said they still don't know the entire content of the contract, which will be in effect for the next 2½ years.

Hospital spokesman Mike O'Farrell said a copy will be posted on L+M's internal website for employees.

AFT Connecticut, the union for the two bargaining units for the registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and technicians, said a majority of the 800 workers did cast ballots, though it did not release numbers. Fewer than 20 of the votes cast were against approving the contract, the union said. The tentative agreement was announced in the afternoon on Jan. 31, a Friday, and the vote scheduled for the following Monday.

"It's not unusual for an agreement to be taken to the membership right after it's reached," said Matt O'Connor, union spokesman. "There was a strong hope that the agreement could be voted on quickly."

He said the union did "outreach efforts" about the contract to members the weekend before the vote, and also held informational sessions on the day of the vote.

"And we answered questions one on one," he said.

The vote followed what was perhaps the most grueling contract negotiation in the 101-year-old nonprofit hospital's history, intensifying during a four-day strike and three-week lockout by the hospital of the nurses and technicians in late November and December. Workers returned Dec. 19 under terms of the expired contract, and the situation remained in limbo until issues relevant to the contract began being aired during a federal labor law hearing that began in mid-January. The newly approved contract settles the issues raised in the National Labor Relations Board case, which centered on seven union jobs lost when the hospital transferred outpatient services from the main hospital to affiliated nonunion physician practices in the community.

Under the new contract, the hospital will limit the number of union positions it will transfer to affiliates in the future. Both sides agreed not to disclose the specific departments or numbers of employees affected.

"We wanted to avoid the winners-versus-losers discussion that would follow," O'Connor said of the reason for not releasing contract details to the public. "It was premised on a new relationship between the hospital management and labor."

O'Farrell, the hospital spokesman, said both sides pledged to engage in "a new way of doing business" that will be more cooperative.

While neither side would reveal details of the contract, sources knowledgeable about it disclosed that in addition to limited job protection guarantees, it also preserves pensions for current employees. New employees would not be included in the pension, however. It also changes the way seniority is counted for employees for "bumping rights" - when laid-off employees are allowed to move into the jobs of less senior employees - and other benefits, sources said. Instead of counting seniority by years of total service at the hospital, including any years union workers spent in nonunion management positions, only years in unionized positions will count under the new system, the sources said.

The contract also establishes rules for union-organizing efforts at the affiliated physician practices in Lawrence + Memorial Medical Group, which employ about 150 workers at about 70 primary care and speciality care doctors' offices in southeastern Connecticut and Westerly. The union had launched an organizing effort there last year and in April announced that a majority of the workers had signed cards stating that they wanted to form a union.

One source close to the negotiations said that acknowledging the union-organizing effort in the contract helps establish a nonadversarial tone as the two sides move forward.

"When there's been conflict and uncertainty, it's important to clarify the process," the source said. "It's a confidence-building measure."



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