Nurses’ work stoppage could linger

Hundreds of UPMC Altoona registered nurses picketed in front of the hospital Tuesday, starting their 24-hour strike at 7 a.m. when the temperature was 5 degrees.

Bundled in coats, hats, hoods, scarves and boots, the SEIU Healthcare PA members held signs, chanted slogans, walked back and forth for a couple hundred yards on the sidewalk, held a rally with other unions at noon and walked around the hospital block holding electric candles in the evening – when picketing ended.

The strike they called to protest management’s cutting off contract talks without resolving issues of staffing, pensions and insurance will end this morning – but that doesn’t mean the drama will cease.

Before 7 a.m. today, the nurses plan to gather, then march to the hospital’s front door and announce their availability to resume work.

At that point, the strike may transition into something that resembles a lockout, although neither union nor the nurses want to call it that.

The hospital, which has hired a company to provide 250 replacement nurses for the minimum four days, doesn’t want to pay for redundant services and will likely tell the nurses they can’t come back yet.

“Nobody should report to work until they receive a call,” said hospital spokesman Dave Cuzzolina Tuesday.

If management turns nurses away today – a “delayed reinstatement,” according to the nurses – they will resume picketing, then in the evening adjourn to the Altoona Area High School auditorium for a rally, said the state union President Neal Bisno.

If the hospital still refuses readmittance Thursday to a significant percentage of the nurses, they’ll take buses to Pittsburgh to picket UPMC headquarters.

“The belly of the beast,” Bisno said.

That trip to Pittsburgh seems likely.

“We’ll probably be calling nurses back through the weekend,” Cuzzolina said. “We hope to have everybody called back by Monday.

The two sides plan to renew negotiations Feb. 18, 19 and 20, according to UPMC Altoona President Jerry Murray.

Union support

A dozen Penelec workers who’ve been locked out of their jobs for 11 weeks came early Tuesday to support the nurses, who have supported them.

They brought fire rings and firewood and stood in the cold quietly in the snow across from the hospital in their coarse brown overalls and hoods.

They said little, appearing grim and dogged, as if their long, so far unsuccessful slog against the company – you can see them picketing every day through this bitter winter along Plank Road – had led them to some primitive place within themselves.

Later, at the noon rally, their leader said they are standing as strong “as on day one.”

At the evening rally, a nurses union leader referred to them as people who had gone through “what you are going through times 10.”

By contrast, the nurses were upbeat.

Asked whether she was cold, local President Paula Stellabotte said, “No, I’m pumped.”

Hundreds of drivers passing by on Howard Avenue honked in support, including a city firefighter who blasted his engine horn for about 15 seconds.

Boxes of coffee and doughnuts lined the snow beyond the retaining wall on the hospital side of the avenue.

Nurses shuttled

In the afternoon, someone hooked up an iPod to a speaker in a union-labeled recreational vehicle parked nearby and blasted rousing music on a mix tape that a union official had made the night before.

The selections included Bruce Springsteen and what sounded like it could have been an old-fashioned ballad depicting heroic labor vs. heartless management.

Vans driven by union officials shuttled most of the nurses to the strike scene from the Jaffa Shrine Center, where they had parked.

They used restroom facilities at a nearby recreation center.

Management pleased

The replacement nurses took over from the regular nurses Tuesday morning without incident, according to Chief Nursing Officer Christopher Rickens.

“It was a very pleasant situation,” he said. “Very professional.”

Management mandated face-to-face reports from the departing nurses – some of whom went to the picket lines – so the replacements, who were unfamiliar with the patients, could ask questions and get details that would otherwise be unavailable if the reports were done on recordings, as usual, according to Rickens.

Management supervised the encounters.

Rickens himself “rounded” on all the floors, and found everything to be “cordial.”

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” he said.

The replacement nurses are from all over – including Florida, Georgia, North Dakota, Alabama, Louisiana and Michigan, said Chief Medical Officer Linnane Batzel and Rickens.

They work routinely as strike replacements and like what they do, Batzel said.

“They find it to be adventuresome,” she said.

Rickens found them to be “engaging and forward.”

A total of 172 regular Altoona RNs had crossed the picket lines by mid-evening Tuesday – a little more than 20 percent of the approximately 800 RNs who work at the hospital.

The hospital had estimated 25 percent.

A union official Tuesday morning said 10 percent.

The regulars worked side-by-side with the replacements, according to hospital officials.

Unity stressed

Each side is accusing its local opponent of being subordinate to its governing organization, to the detriment of the Altoona community, and each local entity denies it.

The nurses said the local hospital is run by UPMC headquarters, which is acting like a “bully” in its attempt to standardize the nurses contract, thus allegedly reducing patient-care standards and making it harder to compete with area hospitals to retain and recruit RNs.

UPMC is no bully, but has let executives of the local hospital – mainly executives of predecessor Altoona Regional – take the lead in contract negotiations, according to Murray, UPMC Altoona’s president.

Moreover, the contract offered has a mix of advantages and disadvantages, compared to the current one, management said.

And the backing of UPMC has enabled the local executives to offer a more generous package to nurses than they could have offered as leaders of an independent hospital, Murray said.

The pre-merger situation wasn’t “sustainable” and would have required layoffs, he said.

Such layoffs are occurring even in celebrated systems like the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic, Batzel said.

Altoona management accuses the nurses of being pawns of an alleged SEIU’s effort to “leverage” the Altoona situation to unionize UPMC hospitals in Pittsburgh.

The planned trip to picket UPMC headquarters on Thursday is evidence of that, Murray said.

The accusation is false, because the local nurses are making their own decisions, Stellabotte has said.

Whatever harm it’s trying to do to the nurses, UPMC has done them a favor by providing a unifying opponent, Stellabotte said Tuesday.

That unity, which the nurses illustrated to those in the management floors by walking around the hospital with lights in silence, is the key to success, according to Bisno.

“The longer the picket line, the shorter the strike,” said Frank Snyder, secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

The picket line was long Tuesday, he said.

Speaking after the vigil, Pastor Paul Johnson talked about UPMC, the Altoona nurses and unions.

The hospital has saved his life twice, with two kidney transplants over many years, he said.

The nurses saved his life when he needed dialysis, he said.

And his union – the Communications Workers of America – filled his basement with food, bought Christmas presents for his kids and held dances, hoagie sales and parties to raise funds when he was out of benefits and penniless due to illness, so while he lacked a bank account before the crisis, “I had to get one” afterward.

“God saved me for a moment like this,” he told the nurses.

The parties need to come together again and get a contract done, he said.

“We can deal with a little cold,” Bisno said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.