For Newburyport’s Anna Jaques Hospital, a multi-million-dollar expansion plan has tensions running high.
The international brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) 103 (Local 103) is protesting the decision of Newburyport’s Anna Jaques Hospital to go with a non-union electrical contractor for its $15 million expansion. In late March, the protesters arrived and began handing out what many perceive as inflammatory flyers about affiliated doctors and how their malpractice leads to injury and infection. The group is erecting a large blow-up rat pointing a finger at “corporate greed,” and sending its message across the sky by plane banners. The campaign, “Anna Jaques Exposed,” is flaring up controversy in Newburyport, an end nowhere in sight.
According to Local 103 business agent Louis Antonellis, the group will soon have a storefront downtown, to be used as a campaign base and to educate about the union’s chief issue. The fight is over healthcare, Antonellis says.
Sensational Approach and Strong Reaction “Who is responsible for the unexpected infections occurring at Anna Jaques Hospital?” asks one flyer. Others warn passersby to “Beware.” Local 103’s website, annajaquesexposed.com, links to a number of affiliated doctors with malpractice settlements.
Those that support Anna Jaques say that the union protesters are vulgar, using curse words, making inappropriate gestures, and shouting inflammatory comments at those in opposition. The Citizens Supporting Anna Jaques group has regular “standouts” at Market Square, Three Corners, and the Market Basket plaza. Started by Michael Roy, former owner of Michael’s Harborside and former member of the hospital’s Board of Incorporaters, the group is pro-Labor and “anti bullying,” he says.
Roy feels the union’s campaign is distasteful and offensive, but when he read that the union might continue its protest for a year or two, he wrote a letter to the editor proposing a citizen response in support of the hospital. “You mean we have to tolerate this barrage against our hospital? …It’s like, ‘Enough already. You’ve made your point, now it’s time to go home,'” he says. Local 103’s campaign leaves many in disgust. “If the union had legitimate concerns, those concerns have been completely lost in the face of the tactics that IBEW’s leadership has used during this dispute. The tactics, like a flyover during the high school graduation ceremony, have been unconscionable. They are an assault on the city itself and its residents, and they have given all labor a black eye,” says local representative Michael Costello.
Antonellis says the union has been in constant contact with Newburyport mayor Donna Holaday’s office and has been respectful of its requests. During the town’s Yankee Homecoming, for example, “we pulled back for a couple of days because we recognized the sensitivity of the area and the event,” he says.
Despite a lack of violations, Costello and others have labeled the union’s “Exposed” protest campaign as extortion. Many say the campaign is really a message to other local hospitals about the price their communities would pay if they do not select the union for a contract. Some individuals dealing with the “Exposed” campaign are afraid to speak, citing concern for their families and businesses. However, Roy says the union has not threatened either his family or his business, Haley’s Ice Cream.
According to Antonellis, the term “extortion” is inaccurate. “The goal is to put Anna Jaques on the spot and let everyone know what their hiring policies areÂ…It’s all about health care.” Local 103 provides 100 percent coverage to all 7,500 union members and retirees in 110 cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts, he says. MEC Electrical Contractors (MEC), a non-union group with a sizeable list of health care clients, does not provide health care, says Antonellis. “There’s a difference between providing and offering,” he says.
It’s About the “Bennies” An MEC spokesperson confirmed that the contractor provides Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance but could not share other information, like retiree coverage, or the percentage of health care premiums the company pays.
The hospital would not confirm the difference in the bids, but according to a member of the Citizens group, the difference was about $200,000. Antonellis attributes this amount to health care costs and says the hospital is simply “taking the cheap route with the health care piece.”
Since its charter in 1900, Local 103 has advocated for union workers. They advertise the best-trained electricians in the field, as well as higher wages to union workers. The union’s website says that “Over the last 25 years, political power has shifted dramatically to corporate and wealthy special interests and away from working families,” and that corporate greed has undone 60 years of progress.
“If it wasn’t for unions, there would be no such thing as employer-sponsored health care,” says Antonellis. “If there is anyone that’s going to take a second look at [its] contractor, it should be a health care facility,” he says.
Every day, hospitals turn people away if they do not have health insurance, but Anna Jaques is saying, “We won’t turn you away if you don’t provide health careÂ…This is Ground Zero on the fight for health care,” he says.
Incredulous Behavior The Citizens group “gave credibility to a lot of people [who] wanted to come forward” in response to the union’s “Exposed” campaign, which Laurie Christiansen calls “vile.” She and others have joined Roy in the crusade against the union protest. Roy is “not a rabble-rouser looking for a fight,” she says.
Christiansen and Roy say the union’s campaign has codified support for the hospital and the Citizens group has more than 80 supporters. At press time, the Citizens had upwards of 400 Facebook connections, while the union campaign page has about 50 “likes.” An initial goal of the Citizens group was to see 1,000 signs supporting Anna Jaques Hospital posted around town. Roy said at press time there were 600 hundred signs up and more to come.
According to Christiansen, the union protest is over the line-and he’s not just referring to the vulgar language and gestures. “How can they obstruct the sign at the entrance to the hospital?” she says. “They sit at the sign and smoke cigarsÂ…So [the Citizens group] got into the fray.”
Last year, the hospital saw more than 33,000 patients, Christiansen says. “It’s a huge resource for the community,” she continues, adding that the union’s campaign is about “heavy handedness.”Â The union simply printed the list of malpractice settlements, she says, adding, “Most doctors settle.” Her family’s doctors are targets of the union’s “Exposed” campaign. “It doesn’t impact us at allÂ…It’s all very inflammatory and it’s meant to scare people. It’s not factual.”
According to Antonellis, all doctors and the hospital itself have the opportunity to review the union’s information for accuracy for a week prior to its being used in the campaign. Not once in four months has there been a written response, says Antonellis. He also insists the protest is peaceful. There have been no actions taken against Local 103 or its members for slander or civil disturbance.
However, “Would they be exposing all these doctors if they got the contract?” Christiansen wonders.
Antonellis responds, “If Anna Jaques cared about health care, we would definitely take a different approach.”Â More than 50 area hospitals support unions, he says. “Holy Family Hospital and others have made the decision to make sure contractors provide health care to their workers.”
Interestingly MEC indicates it has also performed two projects at Holy Family Hospital. However, “as far as Holy Family and Local 103 are concerned, we have a great working relationship,” Antonellis says. “When Holy Family Hospital has medically sensitive or technical electrical/construction work, they are very concerned with making sure contractors ‘provide’ comprehensive health care to their workers.”
Sparks Fly Amid Quiet Response So why go after the doctors? “It’s attention getting,” Antonellis says. The union is not letting the doctors, board of directors, or anyone else affiliated with the hospital “off the hook,” he says. “We all have a stake in the gameÂ…We feel doctors shouldn’t turn a blind eye to this campaign.”
The hospital itself hesitated talking to Northshore and, according to a spokesperson, may be placing a moratorium on further comment to the media and hoped the magazine would defer to the Citizens group. “We’re in the business of taking care of patientsÂ…we have no interest in addressing distracting information.” The spokesperson did say that the open bid process resulted in selecting the “most well-suited for the project at hand and the one that makes the best use of the community’s resources.”
The doctors posted on the union’s “Exposed” campaign website have not addressed the allegations with the union or publicly. “The only thing the doctors are interested in is taking care of patients and running their practicesÂ…Their decision has been not to speak to anyone,” the spokesperson says.
According to Antonellis, the union says it has reached out to the hospital CEO and board of directors to sit down and talk about their concerns; however, the hospital spokesperson did not say if these requests were made or denied.
Staying Power and Stalemate When asked about the cost of the “Exposed” campaign’s use of messaging in the sky, which Antonellis confirms is an airplane-towed banner flown every weekend, he says that it costs the union “far less than the difference in the price of the bids.”
Anna Jaques Hospital’s reputation is not great, Antonellis says. “Some of the statistics we’ve dug up are very believable in the community.” In response to allegations, the Citizens’ website lists the hospital’s accolades.
The campaign “reaches a new level every day,” according to Antonellis, but the union is still open to sitting down and explaining its point of view.
While there is little public evidence of community support for the “Exposed” campaign, Antonellis says, “when [people] take the time to listen, they are appalled by the hospital’s decision.” He forwarded a letter to the editor of the Eagle-Tribune, which stated concern about the integrity of local hospitals that might be trying to save money by leaving workers without health care. When “the rat, the vulgar language, the gestures, the intimidationÂ…when that ceases,” maybe then the counter protest will stop, Roy comments.