WILKES-BARRE — A state union leader told picketing nurses on Tuesday he didn’t know if Wilkes-Barre General Hospital would lock out the nurses when they report for duty at 6:59 this morning, but he told them to be strong.
He also advised them to give nurses who crossed the picket line the silent treatment to show them how they hurt the strikers.
“We have not heard from the hospital at any point that they’re going to lock us out,” Bill Cruice told the more than 150 nurses and supporters at the noon rally.
He said that at a hospital in Ohio, the company locked out just some of the nurses to demoralize union members.
But a statement from Wilkes-Barre General, issued by spokeswoman Renita Fennick, read, in part, “We look forward to welcoming all employees back when the strike ends.”
If there were a lockout, it could be no more than five days, said Cruice, executive director of the Conshohocken-based Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals.
“Because the strike is an unfair labor practice strike, there is a grace period where the employer could delay reinstatement for a couple of days,” he said, noting the law was unclear as to the number of days. “In no case would it be more than five. That’s actually fairly rare.”
He said that after the union walked out for 24 hours on Dec. 3, the members were locked out two more days while temporary workers staffed their shifts.
This time, the approximately 450 graduate and registered nurses who are members of the Wyoming Valley Nurses Association local of PASNAP, walked the picket line for five days, beginning on Friday, Independence Day. They had been working under the terms of a two-year contract that expired in April 2013.
The for-profit Community Health Systems of Franklin, Tennessee, acquired the hospital in May 2009.
The hospital statement issued on Tuesday also read that the hospital has continued all services at the hospital with the help of some unionized nurses who crossed the picket line.
“More than 80 PASNAP-represented nurses have crossed the picket line to provide patient care, working with qualified, temporary replacement nurses,” the statement read.
An ad placed on the U.S. Nursing Corporation website stated nurses were being recruited for a five-day strike in Pennsylvania beginning July 4 and to be available to be away for up to nine days. The pay was listed at $55 per hour and $82.50 an hour for overtime with a guarantee of $2,750 and the possibility to earn up to $4,500. It offered shared housing and paid travel.
Starting pay for registered nurses at Wilkes-Barre General is $26 an hour, and the top rate, after 25 years of experience, is $31.56 per hour, with the average base rate pay at $28.50 per hour, plus benefits.
Cruice told the rally that about 10 percent of union members crossed the picket line, but the hospital’s number comes out close to 18 percent. Cruice told the picketers to focus on the 90 percent who walked.
“It’s going to be key that we stick together when we get back inside,” he said.
He told the nurses not to harass those who crossed the picket line and to act professionally toward them. However, he suggested the striking members give those who crossed the line the silent treatment.
“Send them a message that they are hurting you,” Cruice said.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, also was among the several speakers on the final day of the strike, which the union declared “Shoes Day.” Union members brought shoes to line the curb along the picket line to symbolize that they were walking for their patients.
According to a union news release, the empty shoes represented short staffing and high nurse turnover at the hospital.
Staffing and health insurance have been the main obstacles to a contract.
Pashinski told the strikers the hospital has been making money off the workers’ backs.
“The responsibility you have here is enormous,” Pashinski said. “You’re taking care of human lives, and they’re going to skimp on staffing and health care.”
Pashinski was interrupted at one point when a diesel train engine stopped on the overpass over River Street just down from the hospital and the engineer loudly blew the horn in support of the strikers, causing them to break out into a loud cheer.
Throughout the rally, motorists frequently blew their horns in support, as well, as the strikers carried signs with such messages as “PATIENTS BEFORE PROFITS,” “Honk 4 Nurses” and “Nurse Ratios Save Lives.” Someone also inflated a larger-than-life Rosie the Riveter, a symbol of working women from World War II, on the hospital lawn to more cheers.
The picketers later broke out into the chant, “One day longer, one day longer… .”
Eileen Cipriani of West Wyoming, the Democratic candidate for the state House seat of retiring Phyllis Mundy, also lent her support to the strikers and told them Mundy said to tell them to “Stay strong.”
Pashinski closed out the rally by leading the strikers in a couple of verses of “Solidarity Forever,” sung to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The nurses plan to meet in front of the hospital this morning to walk into work together.