WILKES-BARRE — U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright told picketing Wilkes-Barre General Hospital nurses Monday he wrote to the hospital’s CEO urging him to bargain in good faith with the strikers.
Cartwright, D-Moosic, was among the speakers at a rally in front of the hospital, where unionized registered nurses were in the fourth day of a five-day strike.
Frequently interrupted by the blowing horns of passing motorists and microphone problems, the speakers charged up the crowd of more than 100 strikers who stood under a hot noontime sun on the narrow sidewalk and steep front lawn of the hospital.
Many held signs with messages such as “PATIENTS BEFORE PROFITS,” and a dollar sign with the words, “Recognize this? It’s the face of CHS,” referring to hospital owner Community Health Systems.
Cartwright said CEO Cor Catena had not contacted him in response to the letter to discuss the labor dispute.
Referring to one of the issues separating the sides, the congressman told the nurses, “It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that without adequate staffing, patient safety is at risk.”
Clashes over health insurance and concerns about staffing led to the five-day strike by the more than 400 nurses who belong to the Wyoming Valley Nurses Association/Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals.
No new negotiations are scheduled. The nurses have been working under the terms of a two-year contract that expired in April 2013.
The union says CHS insists that it retain the right to change the health insurance plan at any time during the contract and lock in escalating premium charges. The union also charges CHS has refused to bargain in good faith over nurses’ demands to guarantee staffing.
Another speaker, family physician Dr. Edward Carey, told the nurses he’s seen many changes in the 40 years he’s been affiliated with the hospital.
“One thing that has not changed is nurses’ bedside manner,” he said. “It’s time for us to put principles before personalities.”
Local attorney Michael Cefalo, who said he spent two days on the picket line with the nurses, said people tell him this is the only CHS hospital where there are labor problems. He corrected that conception. “It’s the only place where you stood up,” he said to cheers.
Meanwhile, hospital spokeswoman Renita Fennick, in a prepared statement, said hundreds of hospital employees continued working during the strike, including some unionized nurses.
“Throughout the action, a significant number of the PASNAP-represented nurses scheduled to work have crossed the picket line to care for their patients,” the statement read. “The hospital looks forward to welcoming all employees back when the strike ends.”
The statement continued, “We are committed to negotiations at the bargaining table and hope ultimately to come to a mutually acceptable agreement with PASNAP.”
After the rally, Elaine Weale, president of the Wyoming Valley Nurses Association, said the turnout has been great on the picket line, with 50 to 70 nurses participating each day.
“We’ve got great morale here on the picket line,” said one striker, Lori Schmidt, 54, Wapwallopen, at nurse at the hospital for 26 years.
But Joyce Sciandra, Pittston, a 33-year veteran, said the nurses would rather be working.
“We want to get back to our patients,” she said. “We miss our patients.”