The last hospital strike

Nothing like starting a strike on a beautiful day.

At Temple University Hospital Wednesday, nurses and technicians traded hugs and high-fives on the picket line, the seriousness of the situation taking a back seat, at least temporarily, to the sheer excitement of the moment.

In New Jersey, union leader Virginia Treacy remembers a similar day six years ago — the last time there was a hospital strike in the region.

On April 19, 2004, 338 nurses and technicians walked off the job at Lourdes Medical Center of Burlington County in Willingboro. “We never returned,” said Treacy, a nurse and executive director of the union.

Named JNSEO, her present union represents 5,000 health professionals at many hospitals, including Jersey’s Virtua hospital system.

On July 31, 2006, the strike at Lourdes was declared officially over when the union was unilaterally decertified (meaning no vote was taken). By the end, 70 had crossed the picket line to return to work. Daily pickets were down to 10, on a good day.

“People found other jobs. People moved on,” Treacy said. “If you want to eat, you have to find work.”

Some of the original strikers landed at Virtua and retained their union pensions. Those that stayed with Lourdes lost theirs, she said.

The hospital, run by Catholic Health East, a chain based in Newtown Square, trimmed operations and spent $47 million for replacement staff and public relations consultants, Treacy said. “It certainly wasn’t a pleasant situation.”

Lourdes president Alexander Hatala could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

What Treacy wants everyone to know is that a strike represents a negotiating failure and only occurs when one or both sides has no real interest in coming to an agreement. “A strike is a last-ditch effort and never used lightly,” she said, especially in this economy.

In the end, she says, disputes between management and labor hurt their communities the most.

Catholic Health East owns other hospitals, so it can weather tough times at one location. Ditto for the union.
But longtime workers, she said, have both institutional knowledge and institutional loyalty. And when that goes, “the community has lost a valuable resource."