News & Events

Poll: Support low for nurse strike

Public favorable toward union

By Shaun Sutner

WORCESTER — Already high tension between unionized nurses and management at St. Vincent Hospital has escalated into an open war for public opinion, with hospital officials employing new tactics such as a poll they said shows little public support for a strike, and the union enlisting the support of elected officials on the picket line.

Members of the nurses union voted overwhelming Friday to authorize a one-day strike late this month. The vote gave the nurses’ negotiating committee the ability to call the strike.

The jockeying is unfolding while negotiations continue about where the hospital and its for-profit owner, Vanguard Health Systems Inc., plan to locate a new $20 million cancer center that city officials have been pushing to be part of the downtown CitySquare project.

The hospital’s poll, taken three weeks ago by a private firm owned by Boston pollster David Paleologos as both sides ramped up rhetoric in the midst of a bitter contract dispute, shows that less than a third of the 300 Worcester residents surveyed would support a strike, though most people viewed nurses and unions positively.

Most of those surveyed also opposed a raise when the respondents were told that many nurses make a base salary for full-time work of $110,000, according to hospital officials and the polling firm, DAPA Research.

Union leaders denounced the survey as a “push poll” designed to negatively influence public opinion about nurses and the 740-member union and called it a scare tactic to intimidate workers. In the meantime, union officials accused the St. Vincent administration of threatening to lock out nurses.

“It’s a Vanguard survey. It’s funded by Vanguard. Its credibility is suspect,” said Michelle J. Pellegrino, a medical surgical nurse and co-chairman of the St. Vincent bargaining unit of the Massachusetts Nurses Association union.

But hospital officials said the poll was an accurate reflection of public opinion and that they shared the results with the union.

“We’re not surprised at how high a regard people have of nurses, or how that regard slipped when people learned how much nurses make,” said Dennis L. Irish, a spokesman for the hospital.

Mr. Irish sought to link the union’s push for higher staffing levels and what the hospital says is higher wages with the national debate over the rising costs of health care, saying the combined staffing-salary-benefit package sought by the nurses would contribute to skyrocketing health care costs.

“They are, frankly, in a state of denial about this. The climate has changed. We’re in an environment where people are losing their homes and losing their jobs,” Mr. Irish said. “Labor is 70 percent of our budget. If we can’t control our costs they will be passed along to insurance companies and to cities and towns. That means fewer police officers and firefighters.”

Mr. Irish denied that the hospital intends to lock out the nurses, in the legal sense of the term, as when an owner prevents employees from working until they accept management’s terms. Rather, he said the administration has notified the union that if it carries out a one-day strike, the hospital will be forced to hire replacement nurses for a minimum of four days, at a cost the company says will be about $4 million, or $1 million a day.

“If they strike for one day, we can’t afford to pay for two sets of workers,” Mr. Irish said. “We told them “you will not be working for four days, but it is not a lockout.”

According to the state Division of Health Care Finance and Policy, St. Vincent Hospital reported a profit of $26.7 million in fiscal 2009. For the first nine months of fiscal 2010, the hospital had a profit of $21.7 million

Union officials said they are confident that the public will stick behind the St. Vincent nurses, as it did during a 49-day strike in 2000, when the hospital was owned by Tenet Healthcare.

Any strike in 2011 would occur no sooner than late this month because the union must give 10 days notice after a strike vote that it intends to go out on strike.

“Whatever the poll says, we firmly believe that once people see the facts they will support us, not a manufactured poll by a multibillion-dollar corporation,” said David Schildmeier, a Massachusetts Nurses Association spokesman. “They have an agenda. They want to break these nurses.”

Amid the skirmishes between the hospital and union, Worcester Mayor Joseph C. O’Brien has taken a visible role in the labor-management dispute — on the side of the nurses.

Mr. O’Brien and state Rep. James J. O’Day, D-West Boylston, who also represents part of Worcester, have appeared alongside union members at informational pickets the union has been holding outside the hospital since February. Mr. O’Brien has also met privately with hospital officials, as recently as Thursday when he met with a group of St. Vincent physicians.

Hospital officials are rankled at Mr. O’Brien’s participation in the conflict. And some observers have questioned his apparent taking of sides.

Councilor-at-Large Konstantina B. Lukes, whom Mr. O’Brien defeated for mayor in 2009, blasted Mr. O’Brien for allegedly overstepping the bounds of the mayor’s role in a city in which the city manager is the chief executive and the mayor’s role is largely symbolic other than chairing the City Council.

“As mayor, he can’t avoid appearing that he represents the City Council and the interests of the city as a whole,” Mrs. Lukes said. “But (the St. Vincent contract issue) has never been before us. The City Council shouldn’t be involved when it’s a private labor-management issue.”

Mr. O’Brien retorted that while Mrs. Lukes has said that she sees the mayor’s position as ceremonial, he views his role as more active. He said the mayor’s job includes not only lobbying state and federal elected officials on behalf of the city, but also advocating for segments of the community.

In this case, he argued that because St. Vincent is making a considerable profit, it can afford to pay its workers a bit more and hire more nurses to ensure that patients have adequate care. Hospital officials say they have agreed to add more nurses and boost wages by about 1 percent on top of annual step raises.

“I am a more activist mayor. I am doing what I think is best for the community, which at times is controversial,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Part of my role is advocating for things that are in the city’s best interests.”

While he acknowledged that Vanguard executives may not like his support for the union, he argued that it is implausible to think the company would move the $20 million cancer center project outside the city just because of his role.

“I strongly believe that a for-profit corporation makes a decision based on what’s in the best interest of the hospital,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I’d be stunned if the hospital didn’t make a $20 million investment because they didn’t like the mayor.”

Contact Shaun Sutner by email at

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