DUNKIRK - With negotiations apparently at a standstill, both sides in the labor talks between Brooks Memorial Hospital and 1199SEIU, United Healthcare Workers East, have gone public with some of their concerns.
On Aug. 1, the union announced it would hold an informational picket Thursday from 2-5 p.m. Two days later, Christopher Lanski, Brooks' board of directors chairman, released a statement calling the union's demands "irresponsible." Lanski said the hospital lost $5.8 million in the last two years, with a projected loss of $3.4 million this year.
On Tuesday, Mindy Berman, spokesperson for 1199SEIU, responded to Lanski's statement, saying negotiations are going nowhere and putting part of the blame for the impasse on the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
"The workers are quite upset about the control that the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center seems to have on the process. The hospital keeps playing that down, but the fact is the three top administrators at the hospital are UPMC people," Berman stated. "UPMC has a very clear proven track record of anti-union activities. For this place, where it's a small town where people have worked at this hospital for generations and have been union workers forever, as well the thought of a big corporation coming in, a big corporation that's anti-union and starting to make decisions based on their profit rather than the community, it has been a big concern.
"That's why we began this campaign to put a face on the people who do the real work and do the real care, not some administrators in Pittsburgh."
Berman said she had seen Lanski's release, but the union would not respond directly to it other than to say the union thought "it was a weak attack, some way of demoralizing folks about the picket."
"It wasn't the workers who made bad financial decisions in the past," she added. "The easy solution seems to be to make the workers pay for that in their contract and that's unacceptable."
The local community would suffer as well, according to Berman.
"If people don't have good wages and benefits, what does that mean for the local economy?" she asked. "The hospital workers wages and benefits affect the entire community. ... The implications are so complex and deep and it seems like Brooks and UPMC, I don't know how you separate them really, Brooks and UPMC are trying to take a very complex issue that affects real people with real lives and just turn into a money site.
"That is not to say that the financial health of the hospital is not important to everybody, especially the people who work there, but we can't have a hospital without the people who work in it. ... To put all the pressure of saving the hospital on the backs of the people that actually hold the hospital up, the people without whom the hospital wouldn't run, is unwise, misguided and wrong."
While she said the union won't negotiate in public, Berman did say the hospital is asking for givebacks on wages, pensions, medical insurance and time off.
"I can tell you that all the proposals are so outrageous that they appear to, at least to the negotiating committee, ... they know that they're unacceptable and that is UPMC's modus operandi," she stated. "It is again not doing anything that allows you to work hand-in-hand with the workers. But that is more controversial so you start to fight and it stalls things."
Berman said the federal mediator was at the table Monday with the two sides and the federal mediator couldn't get the hospital to budge.
"What's the message that the hospital is being given? The chair writes this letter to the community that basically says, 'yeah, we're in trouble. We're in financial trouble so we have really no choice but to balance this budget on the backs of the people who take care of you,'" Berman continued. "How crazy. There is no hospital if there is no workers, they are the backbone of the hospital.
"UPMC's tactics are well-known and they're coming out right here in Dunkirk and people are angry about that."
Berman said the workers are allowed by law to go on strike but that is not in the plan.
"We're not thinking about that right now. If we have to think about it, if the hospital forces us to think about it, we'll think about it," she explained. "That's the last thing we want to do. We're just going to keep going to the table until the hospital does the right thing. I think there will be enough community outrage in the next two weeks."
As part of gaining community support, the informational picket will be followed by a rally in Washington Park at 5 p.m.
"A picket is not a strike, nobody is not going to work. You go to an informational picket on your time off," Berman explained. "There's no withholding of labor but it's a way of making your voice heard.
"We're doing this because it's all part of bringing awareness to the community on how it affects everybody, it doesn't just affect the workers. Everybody should be really angry and everybody needs to say, 'UPMC cut it out. This is our community, this is our care and we love our hospital, we love the people who work there and treat them right."'
To sign an online petition of support or for more information go to www.wecareforourcommunity.org.