SALEM – Senate President Steve Sweeney and organized labor officials championed on Tuesday the right of nurses at Memorial Hospital of Salem County to unionize.
Sweeney and Ann Twomey, president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees, criticized the for-profit hospital, saying it has fought the approximately 120 nurses’ attempts to unionize ever since they voted in September 2010. They were certified by the National Labor Relations Board in August of 2011, the nurses said, but the hospital owners continue to fight it.
Sweeney called the conduct of the hospital owners “disgraceful,’’ and called them “the worst of the worst.’’
This was the first for-profit hospital in the state, he said. Tennessee-based Community Health Systems made many promises but instead has worked to decrease services, including at one point trying to do away with maternity care, according to Sweeney and Twomey.
The hospital, which is Salem’s largest employer, is more than 100 years old, and has been a for-profit for approximately a decade.
Twomey and RN Lorie Halter said they have successfully fought back one legal challenge after another by the hospital and won before the National Labor Relations Board, but are held up there by GOP challenges to Obama appointments to the Board.
Sweeney said he will introduce a resolution on Thursday recognizing the right of nurses to bargain for fair, safe working conditions.
In addition, a bill previously vetoed by the governor has been reintroduced that would call for the same transparency by for-profit hospitals as not-for-profit hospitals must provide.
According to Halter, who has worked at the hospital for 15 years, the nurses there are “invested in their jobs. We want to provide outstanding service.’’
But in order to be able to speak up for patients’ safety, according to Twomey, the nurses need to know they will not suffer retaliation, which is where unionization comes in, she said.
The starting salary at the hospital is about $27 an hour, whereas it can be more like $31 an hour in other locations, Twomey said.
Twomey said they aren’t opposed to for-profit hospitals in general, but specifically oppose the conduct of this hospital in refusing to negotiate.
The hospital is in Sweeney’s district, and as Senate president, he is putting his political muscle behind their battle via the resolution and the reintroduced legislation.
In reference to the overall area of Salem County, he said this is not a wealthy area, and patients rely on the hospital. Without it, they might have to ride 25 minutes to the next closest hospital.
Sweeney said they just want the hospital to do the right thing.
“They have not been a good community partner,’’ he said.
By Bill Mooney