Published December 22. 2013 4:00AM
Addressing union health care workers last Wednesday, New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio enjoyed the kind of rousing reception politicians usually only get when they have hand-picked the crowd for campaign rallies.
The 300 nurses and technicians, members of two unions representing nearly 800 health care workers at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, gathered at Port 'N Starboard's Ocean Beach banquet hall to celebrate. The night before, L+M President and CEO Bruce Cummings had announced an end to the lockout that had kept the union members out of work for two weeks beyond the four-day strike they held as a way of airing labor grievances.
Though the workers were returning to their jobs without a new contract, union leaders were calling it a victory because Mr. Cummings blinked first.
Matt O'Connor, spokesperson for AFT Connecticut, introduced Finizio as a strong backer of the union. Before the strike, Finizio had refused to negotiate for the hospital's use of the Ocean Beach lots to stage replacement workers in the event of a job action. When the strike and lockout took place, the mayor was a regular visitor to the picket line, voicing support.
Wednesday, he received a sustained standing ovation.
"I salute you," said Finizio to more cheers. "If they didn't realize the strength that you have, they sure realize it now."
No surprise, perhaps, that a Democratic mayor would back labor. All manner of Democratic politician visited the picket lines, from Gov. Malloy, to U.S. senators, to state legislators. When others return to Hartford and Washington, however, the mayor will remain and at some point have to deal with the hospital administration on numerous issues.
Saying he remained civil and never made the issue personal, Finizio expressed no concern that his strong pro-labor stance damaged relations with hospital leadership.
I wouldn't be so sure.
In a phone conversation Thursday, Finizio made it clear his problems with L+M go beyond this labor dispute.
He criticized last year's decision to move outpatient psychiatric services out of the hospital to clinics in other communities. The result, he said, is that some local people, without transportation, do not get the medicine they need. People not getting needed mental health services places a greater burden on police and ambulance services, he said.
Finizio accused the hospital of "skewing data" to make its financial outlook appear dire, when in fact it is strong financially. "This is an institution that just bought another hospital (Westerly) and opened a cancer center," he noted.
While acknowledging the hospital is dealing with state funding cuts, and that federal policy changes to reduce Medicare and Medicaid costs will present new challenges, New London's mayor said none of it justifies tactics to try to break the union's will.
Such strategies - including eliminating union jobs and hiring non-union staff when services are moved off campus - is more indicative of a cold-blooded, for-profit approach, rather than that of a community hospital enjoying the tax-free benefits of its nonprofit status, said the mayor.
My take is that the mayor is underestimating the long-term fiscal challenges the hospital faces. He would be better off toning down the criticism, dialing back on partisanship, and pushing for the compromises necessary to get a new contract.
On the other hand, you know where he stands, give him that. And members of AFT Local 5049, representing 540 RNs, and AFT Local 5051, representing 250 LPNs and technicians, are loving it.
Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.