WILKES-BARRE — With bull horns, air horns, cow bells and drums made from empty five-gallon plastic buckets, Wilkes-Barre General Hospital nurses launched a planned five-day strike promptly at 7 a.m. Friday that was hard to miss for neighbors and passersby.
No, union President Elaine Weale assured, the noise level of the strike would not disturb patients because outside din rarely finds its way into the hospital rooms. Yes, she added, starting the picketing on July 4 may have stemmed from frustration in recent talks, but it also was partly tactical.
“Symbolically, Independence Day is a good day to do this,” Weale said as a growing group of nurses began marching in an oval around the hospital’s main entrance. “But it also may make it more difficult for them to get replacement workers, and make it more expensive for them to bring in replacements.”
Presumably, Weale said, the hospital management would have to pay time-and-a-half to any replacements brought in for the national holiday, and room rates at area hotels for the replacements may be higher.
The strike is an automatic financial drain for the nurses, Weale added. The union offers no financial aid during a strike, though there is help in getting loan payments deferred.
But it should put a dent in the bottom line for the hospital’s parent company, Commonwealth Health Systems, which bought the hospital in 2009. And that’s what the nurses, represented by the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, must do in order to get a fair contract, PASNAP Executive Director Bill Cruice said during a noon rally during the picket.
CHS is now the second largest for-profit health care company in the country, Cruice said, and he contended the problem in striking a deal is based in greed at the top, citing more than $17 million reportedly paid to CEO Wayne Smith in 2012.
But hospital spokeswoman Renita Fennick stressed the contract is with Wilkes-Barre General, not CHS. “Every hospital within the Commonwealth Health network has separate contracts as well as human resource policies for its employees,” she wrote in an email.
While Cruice touted the fact that 92 percent of the unionized workers joined the strike, an official statement from the hospital began by noting “hundreds of Wilkes-Barre General Hospital employees are on the job today, including 79 registered nurses scheduled to work who have crossed the picket line.”
Cruice criticized the hospital for bringing “scabs from Alabama” to staff the hospital, and predicted the move would reduce quality of patient care while costing CHS at least $3 million, which in the end could convince them to come to an agreement with the union.
The union also noted support from several doctors in the hospital, but the hospital statement countered that “The hospital’s medical staff members are treating their patients in the hospital and in their offices without interruption.”
The union plans to walk the picket line for 11 hours a day for five days, Weale said, but the hospital has the legal option of a five-day lock out after the strike ends, leaving the union members with up to 10 days off the job.
The hospital did follow a one-day strike in December with a two-day lockout.
Weale said any lockout would be limited by law to five days because the union is staging an “unfair labor practices” strike backed up by three unfair labor complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board. Hearings on the complaints are set to start in Philadelphia July 14.
Weale said the two sides had a 15-hour negotiation session last week and that “We thought we were very close” to reaching a deal. When the union asked for another session, Weale said, the CHS negotiator “said he could only meet from one to three (p.m.) Monday.
“We’re ready to meet any time, any place,” Weale said. “We want to settle this contract.”
Weale repeated a union contention that the hospital “keeps asking us to give and we’re not getting anything from them.”
She listed the sticking points:
• The hospital has offered 1.5 percent annual salary increases in a three-year contract. The union wants 2.75 percent this year and 2 percent the other years.
• The contract includes “longevity” raises for nurses at different years in their career. The hospital wants no retroactive raises, giving them only upon ratification of the contract. The union argues the raises are not tied to a specific date and should already have been paid this January, even though the contract expired last April.
• The hospital wants to “grandmother” some new hires, meaning they would not have to join the union but would still be covered by the union contract. While some current nurses are grand-mothered under terms of the initial unionization, Weale said adding more to that number would be a deliberate attempt to weaken the union, extending union rights and protection to people not paying union dues.
• The hospital wants language in the new contract that would allow changes in health care coverage without union input. Weale said the union was told no changes are planned, but added “There has never been any real trust fostered with us and CHS. We’re not going to ratify a contract that allows them, six months later, to give us entirely different coverage.”
• The union has pushed to include language in the contract regarding staffing, something the hospital rejects. Weale said prior contracts addressed staffing in terms of layoffs or furloughs when patient numbers dropped, but did not include “staffing grids,” something she said the hospital has internally but does not heed. Putting language in the contract regarding those grids “would hold them accountable” for maintaining adequate staffing at all times.
The hospital and the union have been at odds frequently. The nurses held a 24-hour strike Dec. 23 in 2010, reaching an agreement in that dispute on May 3, 2011. That two-year contract expired April 2013, leading to the current negotiations for a new deal.