Union protest: Spectacularly strategic, or funny?

To union officials involved in a last-minute standoff with Jefferson University Hospital's management team on June 30, it seemed like a strategic tour de force. Naturally, a management lawyer didn't see it that way.

If you like the give-and-take of labor negotiations, you'll like this story. Let's review. 

On midnight Saturday, June 30, contracts involving 4,725 1199C workers at four hospitals and eight nursing homes would expire. Picketing was set to begin at 6 a.m. on July 1, with the idea that workers at institutions that had settled would join their union brethren on the picket line in their off-duty hours. By the time Friday rolled around, all the contracts but Jefferson's had settled and that was running into serious problems in back-and-forth bargaining at the Sheraton Downtown Hotel in Center City. 

"We decided to take a break at 1 or 2 p.m.," said Chris Woods, an executive vice president with the union. The union set the time to reconvene a few hours later. Woods said the time was set deliberately, because the union had already issued a call for members to wear their blue "We Are One" T-shirts and gather in the hotel lobby when they finished their 3 p.m. shifts.

To understand the impact of this, you need to picture the inside of the hotel. Two long escalators lead from the lobby to the conference room levels and a ride on them provides a sweeping view of the lobby and bar. The management crew had its conference room on the upper level, but the bargaining was taking place in a conference room near the bottom of escalators. To get to the bargaining sessions, Jeff's lawyers would have to take ride on the escalators where they couldn't fail to see the union gathered.

"It was a way of showing them what a strike would like like without actually being on a strike," said Cheryl Feldman, who heads District 1199C's Training and Upgrading Fund. She saw it as evidence of union president Henry Nicholas' strategic thinking, thinking honed by his experience in both the labor and civil rights movements. (Check out this video of his relationship with Martin Luther King.)

Management "would have to go through the sea of blue that was out in the lobby," Woods said. "It was just epic to see our members there." 

When the management crew started down the escalator, union members started chanting, "We Are One."      

Now let's have Jeff's lawyer, Buchanan Ingersoll partner Alfred "Fred" D'Angelo Jr. pick up the story: "Actually, I found it amusing. At about 5 p.m. Saturday, we were coming down the escalator and there were 200 of their folks chanting, `We Are One.' We waved and walked through. When we got inside, I thanked Henry. I told him they started out saying `We Are One,' but when they saw me, they said, "`Fred's number one.'"

Did it make an impact? Who knows? Ultimately, the contract was settled at about 4:20 a.m., less than two hours before picket lines would have gone up.

To read more, check out my Jobbing blog.

Monday: Jewish pharmacists in Harlem and a Philadelphia labor union

Tuesday: Barack, Hillary and the Philadelphia labor movement

Wednesday: Succession planning union style and a profile of Chris Woods in the Inquirer

Tomorrow: Unionizing the union