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Sanders Supports Strike
Union Organizers Rally At Copley Hospital

Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, May 10, 1998


MORRISVILLE - The nurses' strike at Copley Hospital reflects a worsening labor situation for nurses around the nation due to an increased emphasis on financial bottom lines, Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., said at a rally in front of the hospital Saturday.

   Sanders said the strike is a legitimate response to patient health care being compromised by hospital costcutting. He also said that nurses were right to demand higher wages.

   "In the midst of this so-called economic boom, the average American worker is earning less," said Sanders. He pledged that his office would work for a just contract for the nurses that would also ensure quality health care.

   A contingent of nurses from Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington also appeared at the rally to lend their support to the striking nurses, as did several Copley physicians. About 250 people attended the event.

   Copley nurses began their strike a week and a half ago after 75 percent of them voted to form a union and demand concessions from the hospital on issues of pay and work rules. The nurses have been especially resistant to the hospital's requirement that they rotate between departments within the hospital; the nurses claim this doesn't take advantage of their specialized expertise and results in lower quality patient care. They also object to mandatory work limits that send them home to be on call for $1.75 per hour.

   The rally began in the town green, with nurses leading the crowd in singing old-time union songs adapted to the Copley situation. With a shot to Copley president Carolyn Roberts, the nurses sang "Roll the Union On," adapting one verse to say, "If-Roberts gets in the way, we're gonna roll right over her."

   Carrying signs and white balloons, the demonstrators then proceeded the half-mile up the hill to the hospital, where they lined up in front of the main entrance to hear speeches.

   There were no negotiations between the striking nurses and hospital administrators on Saturday. Negotiations halted Thursday, with no progress reported. Copley officials are waiting for a federal mediator to establish a negotiation schedule.

   The three-hour rally went on peacefully, with no confrontations between striking nurses and administrators or replacement nurses brought in by the hospital from a Colorado firm that specializes in providing temporary nurses. The only interruptions in the rally came when two ambulances and two large manure spreaders had to pass through the crowd, which lined both sides of the street in front of the hospital.

   "Scheduling us to come in, and then sending us home to be on call for $1.75 per hour is not valuing nurses," said Sue Lucas, president of the Federation of Nurses and Health Care Professionals at Copley. "We are not warm bodies with a license," she shouted, using a bullhorn. "We are not servants on the hill."

   Lucas said the nurses are "still alive and well, although a little tired, a little stressed," after nine days on strike. "But this has brought us so much together, the union has bonded us together."

   Steve Chamberlain, a intravenous-qualified nurse with Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, took the bullhorn to tell the Copley nurses that "hundreds of nurses in Burlington support you, and know you're fighting the hard fight. We cannot let health care be decided by the bean-counters." Chamberlain is on a union organizing committee of Fletcher Allen nurses.

   Lucas emphasized the solidarity between the striking nurses and other labor organizations, listing more than 15 labor locals that had representatives at the rally, including nurses from Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and the Brattleboro Retreat.

   Sally Conrad, a former Chittenden County state representative, said her Burlington-based Women's Union, an advocacy group for low-income women, was behind the strike "100 percent. Nurses are not glorified waitresses. Don't back down. If you lose, we all lose."

   Some speakers at the podium took the opportunity to slam the replacement nurses brought in to Copley by a Colorado-based company.

   Jack Callaci, a field organizer with the Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, said since the temporary nurses were brought in, he knew of one incident where one patient waited three hours for a glass of water, and another incident where insulin was given to a patient who did not need it.

   Roberts, Copley's president, said Saturday she was aware of both incidents mentioned by Callaci. "I assure you as in all cases where there any problems or any complaints, they are reviewed through our quality management process. With the man that waited three hours for water, as soon as he made that complaint, we immediately reviewed that. With the other incident, as with any medication error, it is reviewed immediately by the quality management department."

   Dr. David Bisbee, who works at Copley, took the megaphone for a brief statement in support of the nurses, with Dr. Brendan Buckley and Dr. Sarayu Balu standing by his side. Buckley said at least a halfdozen Copley physicians were attending the rally with varying degrees of support for the nurses. Buckley said he was dismayed that disagreements between the nurses and the administration had reached the point where the nurses were angry. He also said he thought the administration has not been listening to their complaints. Sarayu said she hoped the strike would be resolved quickly, and said patient care "is not the same" with the replacement nurses.