WILKES-BARRE — Jotanna O’Connell never expected to be the head cheerleader for her fellow unionized workers at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, but that is what has happened.
O’Connell, 26, of Wilkes-Barre, began and ended Wednesday’s rally on Public Square, attended by more than 200 of the 480 nurses who have been locked out of their workplace for two days following their one-day strike Tuesday.
The nurses, who contend they are under paid and required to contribute too much to health insurance, will return to work Friday at the River Street facility.
“They say cutbacks, we say fight back,” O’Connell shouted as the crowd responded.
“What do we want? Contract. When do we want it? Now.” the chanting continued.
More followed, culminating in what has become the nurses’ battle cry: “We won’t break.”
Lori Schmidt, a registered nurse who serves as treasurer of the Wyoming Valley Nurses Association, said the rally was held to show solidarity among the unionized employees and to seek continued public support.
“We have made a commitment to stick together,” Schmidt said. “Since we aren’t allowed on hospital property until Friday morning at 7 a.m., we thought we would rally here in the center of the city.”
Once again there were horns blaring from passing vehicles and shouts of support, coupled with the nurses chanting and the familiar cow bell that has been part of every event.
“We are continuing to fight for our patients,” Schmidt said.
Before the speeches began, the nurses walked around Public Square, chanting and carrying signs and led by a banner that read, “Patients Before Profits.”
Bill Cruice, executive director of PASNAP — the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals — said more than 93 percent of the union members participated in the one-day strike. He said about 30 to 35 nurses crossed the picket line Tuesday, most of them, he said, being non-members.
Fran Prusinski, past president of the WVNA, got the crowd screaming when she said, “If they (Community Health Systems) thought the lockout was going to make us run home and cry, they are wrong.”
Cruice criticized CHS for bringing in out-of-state replacement nurses to work during the one-day strike and the hospital-imposed two-day lockout. Cruice said the nurses are being paid $80 per hour, far above the union rate of $26 to $31 per hour. He said CHS is also paying travel expenses and lodging and meals.
“They are staying at the Hilton in Scranton and are being transported to the hospital on Cadillac buses,” Cruice said.
Hospital company responds
Jim McGuire, CHS spokesman, said the hospital “has continued to provide high-quality care to patients with no interruption or delay to services since the strike began.” He said the Pennsylvania Department of Health has been on-site to review the temporary replacement nurses’ credentials and qualifications and deemed them to be qualified for their assignments.
“Since earlier this year, the hospital has been negotiating in good faith with PASNAP, putting forth fair and reasonable proposals with the objective of reaching a mutually acceptable agreement,” McGuire said. “We remain committed to the collective bargaining process and to maintaining a positive relationship with our employees and their bargaining agents.”
McGuire also explained the difference between Commonwealth Health and Community Health Systems.
“Commonwealth Health is the name of our regional network of eight hospitals — Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, Regional Hospital of Scranton, Moses Taylor Hospital, Tyler Memorial Hospital, First Hospital, Special Care Hospital, Mid-Valley Hospital and Berwick Hospital Center,” McGuire said. “All of our hospitals are affiliates of Community Health Systems of Franklin, Tenn.”
The nurses have been working under the terms of the contract that expired in April. According to the union, the unresolved issues in the ongoing dispute between CHS and its unionized nurses include wages, benefits, especially health care costs, mandatory overtime shifts, unfilled vacancies and staffing levels.
Anthony Wilkie, one of the union members, said the dispute is about much more than wages and benefits.
“We want to work in a safe environment,” he said. “We want safe staffing levels so our patient/nurse ratio is good.”
Elaine Weale, WVNA president, led the nurses in the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
“The right to organize and the right to form a union began a long time ago,” she said. “It’s a privilege for us living and working in the United States.”
And then it was O’Connell’s turn to return to the stage.
“No contract, no peace,” she and the nurses shouted. “What’s disgusting? Union busting.”