WILKES-BARRE — Hundreds of Wilkes-Barre General Hospital nurses hit the picket line Tuesday to call public attention to the ongoing labor struggle while at the same time sending the message that they will not back down.
With nurses carrying signs, shouting slogans and ringing cow bells, the one-day strike provided a glimpse into the battle between Wilkes-Barre General Hospital’s 480 unionized nurses and Community Health System, the Tennessee-based, for-profit corporation that owns the facility.
At noon, a rally attended by hundreds of nurses and representatives of other local unions turned up the heat on the situation that has seen the nurses working under the terms of a contract that expired in April.
The nurses say they want to negotiate an end to the strike, but CHS has not been willing to even respond to requests for meetings.
“It seems to be CHS’s M.O. (method of operation),” said Elaine Weale, president of the Wyoming Valley Nurses’ Association. “They like to drag these things out as long as possible. Unionized workers stand in the way of bigger profits.”
Weale said the nurses are aware of CHS’s track record in labor negotiations. She said the company has, in some cases, “negotiated for years” and has had to be ordered back to the bargaining table.
“They’re spending tons of money for these replacement workers,” Weale said. “It would be much better just to sit down and negotiate.”
Weale said nurses make between $26 and $31 per hour. She said the last wage proposal offered was “a slap in the face.” She said the health care package offer was expensive to union members as well.
“We have told CHS that we are willing to meet every day to get a contract,” Weale said. “We have received no response at all.”
The crowd grew as noon approached, with hundreds of striking nurses huddled together to hear what their union leaders and elected state representatives had to say.
The nurses carried signs that said, “Our patients deserve better,” and “Patients before profits,” as vehicles passed by beeping their horns in support. Several emergency vehicles sounded their sirens to show the nurses they are on their side.
And then the chanting started:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
“One, two, three four — safe staffing on the floor.”
“Five, six, seven, eight — CHS, negotiate.”
Weale seized the bullhorn, stood on the wall in front of the hospital. “I have a message for CHS,” she said. “Don’t come to Wilkes-Barre and mess with the nurses.”
Fran Prusinski of the Wyoming Valley Nurses Association turned and pointed to the hospital.
“The numbers here today sends a clear message to the ivory tower over there,” she said. “These nurses won’t break.”
Weale said the CHS corporate hierarchy has lost sight of humanity.
“All they know is profits, profits, profits,” she said. “If they want to play hardball, we will play hardball.”
Patricia Eakin, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP), praised the nurses for their “bravery.” Eakin said it’s not always easy to do the right thing.
“We have to bring (CHS) arrogance to a halt,” she said.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, said the issue is one of unfairness.
“Your jobs are absolutely critical to the safety of patients,” Pashinski told the nurses. “You are the privates, sergeants, lieutenant and colonels dedicated to healing sick people. You have the truth behind you.”
He said the nurses are “standing on the shoulders” of their ancestors who came before them and organized their workplaces to assure they were treated fairly.
“You’re not asking to be paid what their CEO makes,” he said. “This company is making bazillions, yet they can’t pay a fair wage to the people who make this institution strong. But they will pay replacements three times what they pay you.”
CHS would not release what the company is paying replacements, where they are from and what other expenses — travel, lodging and meals — they are being reimbursed. The union claims the replacements are being paid $80 per hour.
“You have to stand up to the bully,” he said. “If you don’t, the bully will keep beating you up.”
Then Pashinski asked, “How long can you last?” And the nurses responded loudly: “One day longer than the boss.”
Ed Harry, president of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Labor Council, said the nurses have restored his faith in the labor movement.
“CHS is one of the worst employers in the country,” Harry said. “As this goes on, you must get stronger. Prepare for the worst and stay strong. Put these jerks in their place.”
Christine Wysocki pointed to the hospital and said, “That building is not Wilkes-Barre General.” Pointing to the nurses, she said, “Wilkes-Barre General is right here.”
Bill Cruice, executive director pf PASNAP, said the battle won’t end today.
“We’re going to win this fight,” he said. “Truth and justice are on out side.”
Cruice said 93 percent of the unionized nurses participated in the one-day strike.
“We’re not going to allow them to divide us,” he said.