News & Events

Informational pickets, rallies, vigils and leafleting at health care facilities

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
April 2006 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

Nurses across the state have become very active in their efforts to win successful contracts and in supporting their negotiating committees. These activities have taken many forms, including: wearing buttons, stickers and ribbons; circulating petitions (both within the bargaining unit and to the public); leafleting; holding rallies and vigils; and conducting informational picketing. Questions often arise about these activities, such as what is allowed? Where is it allowed? And when is it allowed?

This article addresses these questions, although it focuses primarily on the most public types of action that are taken by bargaining units.

Informational picketing
Informational picketing is a public, visible demonstration that takes place usually in front of the hospital or facility where the dispute is occurring. In simplest terms, it is a group of workers who gather together holding signs and who walk along the property line in front of the facility. Often they will chant or sing as they walk. The informational picket is not limited only to the workers at that facility. In fact nurses, friends, family members, other unions, community advocates and supporters often join the picket line. Family pets have even been known to join the line, as at Mercy Hospital in Springfield.

The members of the press are always invited to observe, record and report on the event. The MNA usually has a press contact from the bargaining unit where the dispute is occurring who is ready and willing to explain to the media exactly why the picket is happening.

  Signature collecting, vigils and informational picketing are allowed at health care facilities — but care must be taken to be sure each activity complies with federal law.

An informational picket is not a strike or work-stoppage. It is strictly informational and designed to publicize the fact that a dispute exists with the employer. Employees may participate in the picket, but only off of work time. Therefore, there are no attempts made to block traffic or the entry-ways to the facility as people and other employees enter. Often, there will be police present (especially if the facility is on a heavily trafficked area), for public safety purposes. Generally, the police will make sure that public access is maintained and will guide traffic in and out as necessary.

The signs that are carried at the picket are there to inform the public about the dispute. One should state that the picket is “informational” in nature, since it might look to the public as if a strike is in progress. In addition, informational leaflets are often distributed and the picketers have to keep moving. They are not supposed to simply stand around in groups, but are to keep marching.

Employers have been known to try and intimidate employees from participating in such a picket. They have done this often by surveillance and the use of cameras. Such surveillance (if designed to intimidate) has been ruled in the past by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to be a violation of the law, since it infringes on the legal rights of workers. However, there have recently been many rulings from the current NLRB that are hostile to workers’ rights as they constantly revisit issues long ago decided

  RNs at University Campus of UMMC picket again
The registered nurses of the UMass Memorial Medical Center University Campus conducted a second round of informational picketing on April 5 as management continued to try to decimate the quality of the nursing program at the facility. Hospital management has continually been coming to the negotiating table with proposals that would dismantle nearly every existing provision in the nurses’ contract—a process that will prevent the recruitment and retention of staff needed to ensure safe patient care. The nurses were seeking the public’s support as a way of convincing UMMC management to stop its assault on the nurses and to bargain in good faith.

The 10-day notice requirement
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was amended in 1974 to include coverage of non-profit hospitals. As part of those changes, a provision (Section 8 (g)) was included that requires a 10-day notice to health care institutions (hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, HMOs) before any picket or strike occurs. The intention of these notices is to give the health care institution sufficient advance notice to permit them to make arrangements for the continuity of patient care.

These 10-day notices must be sent, in writing, by the labor organization to the health care facility and to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) office. The MNA has a practice, as a courtesy, to also send such notice to the state’s Board of Conciliation and Arbitration, although it is not required. The notice must be received by the employer and the FMCS no less than 10 full days before the action is to commence. That means a minimum of a full 240 hours in advance. Counting the day that the notice was sent as a “full day” may not meet the legal requirement. There is no way to fudge this count. Accuracy of the notice is therefore critical, otherwise those engaging in the action might be at risk.

Informational pickets may also take place during the term of the contract (unless expressly stated otherwise) with the appropriate notice given. This is almost always not the case of a strike, where a “no strike” clause would still be in effect during the term of the contract.

Informational leafleting
Informational leafleting is the simple act of handing out leaflets to the public. Often a leafleting campaign will—like an informational picket—inform the public about a labor dispute. However, such leafleting cannot look like a picket: it should not involve a large number of people; these people should not be wearing/holding signs; they should not be walking around; and they should not be chanting.

Such informational leafleting does not require a 10-day notice. This activity was not covered in the Section 8 (g) of the NLRA. It may serve much the same purpose as picketing (providing information of a dispute) but it does not carry as much of an impact. Seldom would the media be interested in covering such a low-level event. Successful leafleting can be accomplished with only a handful of people.

Informational leafleting is not limited to the facility. MNA nurses have handed out leaflets in many other public areas—in public squares, shopping areas and grocery stores. Such leafleting has at times been combined with the signing of petitions, as was recently conducted in the Cape Cod Hospital fight for a contract. It was extremely successful, since the nurses had effectively communicated their message and the hospital had antagonized the community with grossly misleading paid advertisements in the local newspapers.

Rallies and vigils
At times, nurses have organized public rallies and vigils in support of their issues. These would involve large numbers of employees and members of the public in an open display of support through speeches, songs, chants and candle lightings.
The key issue that may determine if a 10-day notice is required is where the event takes place. If the rally or vigil takes place well away from the facility, no notice is required. But the clarity of the law becomes fuzzy the closer geographically that the event is to the facility. NLRB cases have fallen either way on the requirement even if a rally is held at a public park right by the facility or on a road well removed, but on the only entrance or egress to the facility.

In these instances it would perhaps be wise to send a 10-day notice regardless in order to be on the safe side. Such caution is magnified in light of the efforts of the current NLRB to turn back the clock on workers’ rights.