On the picket line

The Central Avenue sidewalk in front of Brooks Memorial Hospital was filled with employees, some of their family members and other supporters Thursday afternoon. The occasion was an informational picket organized by 1199SEIU, United Healthcare Workers East, which represents 175 direct caregivers, technical and clerical employees and maintenance workers at the 65-bed hospital.

The decision to stage the one-day event was made as negotiations have stalled and union members decided to take their contract concerns to the public. The reason for the move, according to Mindy Berman, spokesperson for 1199SEIU, was to help inform the public about hospital management’s negotiating tactics.

The influence of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center on negotiations is a concern of the union as three top Brooks administrators have UPMC connections. According to union officials, Brooks’ top administrators left the facility prior to the picket start.

The picketing was led by a union member with a megaphone.

“Here we go again, out here on the picket line, UPMC has lost their mind,” was one of the chants.

Whistles blown by marchers along with the honking horns of supporters as they drove by made for a much louder environment than is usually the case.

“The employees are a little tired of getting stomped on,” one member stated.

The two-hour event was orderly and ended with a walk to Washington Park for a rally.

Speakers in the park included union officials, past and present, along with employees and state Sen. Cathy Young.

First up, however, was Doug Stock, a longtime Dunkirk Area Labor Council member who said Dunkirk is a union town built by union members. He stated what the attendees likely wanted to hear.

“It is now time for the unions to stand together to fight for a fair contract,” he said.

State Sen. Cathy Young was introduced as a supporter of health care in general, not just at Brooks. She addressed the group, saying the community needs to utilize the assets the hospital has to help it stay open.

“I know how hard you work caring for the patients of this community. … I know so many of you have dedicated years of your life to making this hospital an excellent healthcare facility,” Young told the crowd. “I just want you to know that we understand what you do. We’re grateful for what you do and we want you to be able to continue to do what you do by having a job at Brooks Memorial Hospital.”

Young cited the community’s efforts in helping to save NRG and called for the same effort to support Brooks.

“The way you can touch the bottom line is by making sure that we’re using them. … Talk to you neighbors, talk to your friends, talk to your family members,” she explained. “We need to keep our healthcare local.”

Calling the hospital’s capabilities extraordinary, Young called on the community to utilize them.

The current 1199 SEIU contract, which expired April 30, was a three-year agreement and provided wage increases of at least 6.6 to 9.5 percent over the life of the contract, based on years of service. The contract covers licensed practical nurses, clerical, service and maintenance workers.

Negotiations began in March but in June, 1199 SEIU negotiator Kathy Ville told the OBSERVER the talks were stuck, despite the efforts of a federal negotiator.

The 1199 Service Employees International Union Bargaining Committee, made up of Brooks Memorial Hospital workers, says that the hospital, now affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, is intentionally stalling negotiations by putting forth contract proposals that they know are unacceptable to the workers.

Another negotiating session was scheduled today.

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