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Striking Hospital Workers Locked Out

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Video report by Crystal Hall, Fox CT

Text by Kelly Glista and Steven Goode, The Hartford Courant

Striking workers trying to return to work at New London‘s Lawrence + Memorial Hospital were locked out late Saturday night, as the company had promised it would do.

The union and management spent four hours negotiating on Friday night, but they recessed and plan to return to the table on Tuesday, hospital spokesman Michael O’Farrell said on Saturday. Until then, the workers will be prevented from returning, O’Farrell said.

The 790 nurses and health care technicians went on strike on Wednesday, and planned to return to work on Saturday night.

During the Friday night negotiations, the hospital management stated its intention to follow- through with the lockout if workers tried to return, union spokesman Matt O’Conner said.

O’Connor said workers would resume picketing immediately in the case of a lockout. If the two sides don’t reach an agreement, the union plans to file an injunction to block the lockout, he said, calling it “an unfair and illegal tactic.”

O’Farrell said Saturday that union threats of continuing strikes “left us no choice but to impose the lockout.” He said the ID badges of the employees in the two striking bargaining units will be deactivated and they will be asked by hospital security to leave the property.

“This is a serious step and it’s not one we wanted to take,” O’Farrell said Saturday evening. end add

But he said that the Friday night talks were “a civil conversation that we hope will continue Tuesday. A great deal of focus last night was on reaching a better understanding of the last offers on the table from both sides.”

On Saturday, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, and Chris Murphy, and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, issued a statement, again calling for both sides to return to negotiations and avoid a lockout.

“Given the fragile state of affairs between the two sides, and the union’s willingness to return to work, we continue to believe that no further escalation of the dispute should occur between now and Tuesday,” they said in the written statement. “Imposing a lockout carries grave risk, escalating the impasse instead of resolving it.”

O’Conner said that much of Friday night’s discussion focused on a single provision of the union’s latest counterproposal.

“We hope this was a step in the right direction — and not simply a dog and pony show in response to pressure from the community and elected officials to get back to the table,” he said early Saturday morning.

The negotiations followed an afternoon rally at which hundreds of strikers and labor supporters gathered outside the hospital on Montauk Avenue in New London. There, Blumenthal pointed at the hospital and urged the union and the hospital’s management to return to the bargaining table and hash out a deal.

“Workers want to be back inside the building, not walking to protest,” Blumenthal said in a phone interview Friday.

“Their work is hugely important to the health of the communities, and they are not alone because they are carrying on a cause for many working men and women in Connecticut and around the country who want simply fairness in the workplace,” he said.

This is the largest Connecticut hospital strike in 27 years, coming as union members were pressing for more job security after they had seen many of their hospital duties moved “off-campus” to new, lower-paid staff.

Hospital officials planned the worker lockout because they claim that the union threatened more strikes after the current one. The uncertainty of ongoing labor actions persuaded management to keep on the estimated 200 temporary workers it has hired.

Lisa D’Abrosca, local president of the AFT Healthcare union, said earlier this week that no multiple strikes were planned and that the hospital must have “made that one up.”

O’Farrell said Friday that the threat of “intermittent strike activity” was “crystal clear,” adding, “With patient care our No. 1 priority, we aren’t able to operate under the threat of additional strikes.”

After the strike began Wednesday, the hospital brought in the temporary workers to cover most of the union members’ work. An intensive-care unit and a special cardiac critical care unit were consolidated earlier in the week, and the hospital eliminated elective procedures until Saturday.

Elective surgeries resumed Saturday, O’Farrell said, bringing the hospital “a step closer to normal surgical operations.”

Two operating rooms will be available for elective procedures Saturday through Tuesday, and three additional rooms will open on Wednesday, O’Farrell said. The hospital typically runs six operating rooms for elective procedures, he said.

“With the ability now to ramp up our elective schedule, we will complete many of the cases that were postponed within the next week,” he said.

O’Farrell said that the hospital has had no care issues during the strike. “The plan we developed to have in this situation has guided us through.”

Negotiators had planned to resume talks on Tuesday to replace the union contract that expired this past Wednesday morning.

This was the first strike in Lawrence + Memorial’s history. The last major hospital strike in Connecticut occurred at Waterbury Hospital in 1986.

Courant staff writer Brian Dowling contributed to this story.

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