strike, the mayor‘s business partner is on the hospital board and the chief of police‘s wife is a strikebreaking nurse.
One night about two weeks ago, strikers say that city police went door to door removing signs which supported the nurses.
“They claimed that they were in the right of way,“ said nurse-supporting volunteer G.T. Long. “But I had been up and down these streets removing the signs which were in the right of way and I know that they took hundreds that were on private property in peoples yards.“
Not only were the signs wrongly removed, say the nurses, they were destroyed while in police custody when, according to police, an officer who was washing
his car failed to notice the pile of signs and saturated them with water.
“We don‘t know that it was done on purpose,“ said Police Chief Mike Vargo.
Long said the sign removal has strengthened support. “Where signs were removed, now people want to replace them with two or three.“
There have been problems with local officials, according to the nurses‘ lawyer, Ted Iorio. At one point the city tried to block the nurses from marching
the sidewalks with signs, wrongly claiming that they first needed to secure a parade permit. The city also reneged on an agreement to allow the nurses to keep a trailer near the picket line.
When the nurses picketed near the home of NMH board member Dr. Wendy Walker recently, Michigan State Police responded, copying the IDs of people lawfully exercising their free speech rights.
Judging from the police response, “You would‘ve thought we had Saddam Hussein in our trunk,“ said Iorio.
“We can‘t buy a decent word in this town,“ said Teamster business agent Sharon Norton. Norton says the Petoskey News-Review refused to print an ad by
the striking nurses until they watered down the language. (Editor‘s note: the Northern Express also routinely edits ads for content, as do all newspapers.)
The nurses have been on strike since the hospital broke off negotiations with them on November 13, 2002.
The hospital says the strike is about money but striking nurses say that it is about the number of patients per nurse, having a voice in patient care, and about pensions.
As the hospital struggles to maintain business as usual with around 270 nurses on strike, there are widespread reports of an alarming decline in the quality of patient care. Some area residents are delaying elective surgeries and using hospitals in nearby towns.
Patient care, one of the main issues that led the nurses to strike, has become an issue in which the governor appears to be prepared to intervene.
In an unprecedented move last month, Governor Granholm convened a “blue ribbon“ panel to investigate the situation at the hospital.
On July 10 and 11, several hundred people packed forums in Petoskey to testify about the situation inside the hospital. Their horror stories included botched procedures, neglect and unprofessional behavior on the part of hospital staff.
Granholm will issue a recommendation to the hospital in mid August.
The governor‘s panel is not the only group ready to intervene.
Last week, two people got themselves arrested in the hospital demanding answers to financial questions regarding what NMH has paid out to break the strike. Stephen Brede and Linda Badalucco spent more than five hours in the hospital before being
arrested by officers from Petoskey‘s Department of Public Safety.
They are part of a new organization, Citizens to Save Healthcare, which says it is concerned with the dispute at the hospital and with its consequences for
healthcare in the region.
The group of retirees, students and professionals say they take “an active, non-partisan stand advocating full fiscal responsibility and disclosure from the managers of our community hospital.“
NMH is a publicly-funded non-profit hospital,say the Citizens, and as such has a responsibility to make public its finances.
People without health insurance increasingly wait until their condition is quite advanced before they come into the hospital, explained Citizens member Meredith Richter, a retired professor of nursing from North Central Michigan College.
“If the hospital is short staffed and must attend to life-threatening cases first, some of these people may not get the care they need in time,“ she said.
Richter says she is concerned that the replacement nurses are not being properly oriented and trained. She said more and more hospital patients are insisting that family members come with them to help supervise the care they are given.
“I think the people in the community should be more concerned and interested in what is going on here,“ said retired nurse and Citizens member, Pat Keibler. “Because when they come in to this hospital -- and we never know when we may come in -- they are the ones who are going to be the patients. They are the ones that are going to be receiving the care.“
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
On July 22, Citizens to Save Healthcare asked NMH CEO, Tom Mroczkowski, to respond within the week to a list of questions about the hospital‘s use of funds during the strike.
Members of the Citizens returned when the week was up and were given a letter which they felt had inadequate answers.
Dr. Benjamin Pettit, a retired oncologist who spent 26 years at NMH, was among the group that arrived to ask for answers. “I have become increasingly concerned
that quality care is becoming only a motto here,“ he said.
“I am anti-union,“ said Pettit, “but I fully respect a multitude of these nurses and I understand that they were forced to unionize over the course of 20 years. They had no choice.“
The group asked Mroczkowski to give financial information by the next morning.
The next morning, members of the Citzens entered the hospital and asked for the answers and refused to leave until they were given.
Badalucco and Brede were arrested after their sit-in at in the hospital, charged with trespassing, and released on $100 bail.
Citizens to Save Our Healthcare said it will continue its financial investigations of the hospital as well as its campaign of civil disobedience.
NEWS OF THE ARRESTS
When news of the arrests reached the meeting of nurses‘ Local 406 later that night, there was heavy applause from the nearly 200 people crammed into the hot little room.
The atmosphere at the Local 406 office is that of a thriving community center.
A hand stitched cloth sign hanging on the wall reads, “If you can‘t find a way, make one.“ There are sign-up charts on the wall. A motorcycle club is riding to
Petoskey to support the nurses, and striking nurses have signed up to bring taco salad and potato salad to the picnic that is planned. There are loaves of bread and piles of zucchini for anyone to take as well as women‘s clothes and postings about jobs in other towns.
After nine months spirits remain high.
Nurses and unions from around the country continue to send in contributions and supportive vacationers drop by the picket line and hand over cash.
The nurses have not lost their humor. The hospital‘s lawyer, Steve Fishman (whose website advertises that he‘s the man to keep a business “union-free“) has bought a new yacht. “That‘s how much he‘s making off this“ strikers joke. They will be holding a contest to name Fishman‘s new yacht.
Brad Anderson, 15, son of a striking nurse, has made working at Teamsters 406 office his summer job. He has made yard signs, worked on databases and
volunteered to keep the website www.mash406nmhnurses.com updated about the yacht
Despite the humorous, upbeat disposition of the crowd, the nurses wince with concern as they listen to reports that infection rates are rising at NMH.
They also worry about each other. “Please let us know if someone is in trouble,“one nurse said, scanning the crowd for others who might be suffering
from the strain of the long strike, aware that nurses might be more likely to speak up for someone else‘s needs, “We can‘t cure everything but we can certainly try.“