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Striking Temple University nurses say: ‘We won’t back down!’

Published Mar 31, 2010 6:24 PM

March 31  —  Over 1,500 members of Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals hit the bricks today after six months of negotiations with Temple University Hospital failed to reach a contract. Two days prior PASNAP members voted 980 to 50 to strike.

Photo: Kelly Valdez

Picket lines were set up as workers left their night — shift jobs at 7 a.m. and at noon in a militant show of force.  Over a thousand strong, striking workers and their supporters rallied and partially blocked Broad Street near the hospital. Following the rally, workers with signs reading “Put patients before profits” marched around the hospital building, nearly surrounding it as Tom Petty’s “I won’t back down” blared from the rally sound system.

The rally was an impressive demonstration of worker solidarity from a workforce with a clear majority of Black, Latina and other immigrant women. The union represents 1,000 nurses and 500 professional and technical workers at a hospital that serves north Philadelphia’s largely Black, Latino/a, and Asian immigrant communities.

Management’s last offer would double health care premiums for nurses; triple them for the professional staff; freeze wages for year one of the contract; and reduce hard — won wage differentials for undesirable shifts and 24 — hour on — call rates. Their final offer gave the hospital administration the right to change or eliminate health plans at any time and to hike premiums annually.

The hospital’s attempt to impose its “non — disparagement” clause  —  basically a gag — clause that would prohibit employees from publicly criticizing or making any statement that management considered “derogatory of Temple”  —  was also a key issue.

The hospital maintains that there is never a need to go public to protect patient safety, but PASNAP President Maureen May noted that the gag clause was a key issue because it would allow management to fire workers who publicly criticize the hospital. “I’m a patient advocate,” May said. “I want to be able to speak out for my patients.”

The union supports staffing ratio legislation pending in the Pennsylvania legislature and anticipates that its members may need to testify at public hearings to give first — hand accounts of unsafe situations.

The hospital also illegally eliminated a long — standing dependent tuition benefit last year and refuses to reinstate it in any future agreement, even after the PA Labor Relations Board ruled in the union’s favor in January 2010.

Exorbitant salaries for CEOs, scabs

Another key issue in the strike is the hospital’s attempt to curb the power of the union by ending fair share or agency fee payments, effectively destroying the closed shop. Management is also pushing for a three — year contract for nurses and a four — year agreement for the technical/professional staff to weaken the union. One worker at the rally commented that “every union in this hospital should be out here” noting their cause would have been strengthened if all the other unions representing workers at the hospital had asked their members not to cross the picket lines.

Although two of Temple University Hospital’s CEOs, Sandra L. Gomberg and Edmond F. Notebaert, have a combined income of over $4 million, the administration has repeatedly cited the economic downturn to justify the concessions they are demanding from the workers.

Jim McCarthur, a member of the PASNAP bargaining committee and a nurse for 16 years, pointed out that the economic downturn didn’t stop the hospital from hiring 800 scabs at salaries of up to $10,000 per week and paying for their transportation and accommodations.  An ad to lure strike — breaking workers read: “It is a safe, fun and a great professional experience.”

“In just two weeks the money management is paying to break this strike would be enough to settle the cost of a four — year contract,” McCarthur told the crowd.

Support for the striking nurses was clearly evident from the patients who waved from windows to ambulance drivers who honked their horns in solidarity.  A vending cart near the hospital bore a sign that read “We support the nurses.”

Paul Prescott, representing Temple University Student Labor Action Project, said that his group had gathered over 1,300 signatures in support of the nurses and delivered them to Temple University president Ann Weaver Hart.  A popular chant at the rally was “Ann Hart, you can’t hide.  We can see your greedy side!”  Should the strike continue, PASNAP has called for a rally outside Hart’s home in Rittenhouse Square.