WILKES-BARRE — “Day three to victory!”
That was chant that started Sunday during a rally by striking nurses outside of Wilkes-Barre General Hospital. Elaine Weale, president of the local union, said the striking nurses have rallied each day at noon. Each rally features different speakers who talk about different issues that the union faces, as well as speakers from other labor unions.
The five-day strike began on Friday. General is owned by the for-profit Community Health Systems (CHS) of Franklin, Tennessee, which acquired the operation in May 2009.
“The purpose of the rally is just to remind everybody why we’re here, ” Weale said.
The baking afternoon sun did little to deter nurses from hitting the picket line and attending the rally. Voices boomed on the sidewalk in front of the hospital. Striking nurses gathered around and heard from Weale along with other speakers from Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP).
Other organizations such as American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 2809 and United Steel Workers 15253 also came out in support of the strikers.
Speaker Patricia Eakin, president of PASNAP, praised the group that was gathered outside, and said the members were not alone. She said nurses statewide from PASNAP were with them.
“We are all watching you. We are all going to do what we can to support you because we all need a victory,” Eakin said. “It’s not just about you, it’s about all of us.”
Bill Cruice, executive director of PASNAP, called the strike “completely unnecessary” even though the union was acting reasonably to get an agreement.
“But the hospital was insisting on maintaining such complete control over health care that at any minute, they could just turn on a dime and make any change whatsoever to the health care plan, and that’s simply not something that we can accept,” Cruice said, referring to health care insurance coverage for striking workers.
Cruice also said the burden that nurses endure after a shift is something that is not accounted for — wondering whether a patient would be OK.
Weale said the hospital employs approximately 460 nurses, but added it is hard to attach a precise number due to the high turnover rate. She said about 90 percent of the nurses have joined the strike. The hospital has said that 79 registered nurses crossed the picket line on the first day.
Weale said the morale was high, and the turnout has been strong on the picket line. Public support was also apparent, as vehicles going by blared their horns and waved in approval.
As far as the effectiveness of the strike, Weale said it’s a unpredictable.
“They (CHS) need to know that this is not the end-all,” Weale said. “If they continue bad-faith bargaining, there will be more actions.”
The hospital did not return a call for a request for comment Sunday, but has said that it has been bargaining in good faith. It has said that certified replacement workers are being used and all hospital services are available. All public entrances and parking facilities remain open.
The strike issues
Some of the sticking points of the strike include:
• 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 that 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 (the hospital) accountable” for maintaining adequate staffing at all times.
The union’s picket line is up 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. The nurses are set to return to work Wednesday.
Not the first time
The nurses also held a 24-hour strike from Dec. 23 to 24 in 2010, but it was not extended by a lockout, as they continued negotiating with CHS. They reached an agreement on May 3, 2011, and have been working under the terms of that contract that expired in April 2013.
On Dec. 3, 2013, the union held a 24-hour strike and was locked out two more days while temporary workers staffed their shifts. The union filed unfair labor complaints against Wilkes-Barre Hospital Co. LLC in April, claiming it made numerous requests to the company for information in order to be able to bargain for a new contract. The NLRB set a hearing date for July 14 in Philadelphia.
CHS owns, operates or leases 208 hospitals in 29 states and is the largest publicly traded hospital company in the country.