Leaders say the union can't afford to pay its nurses benefits for walking a picket line, so it can't force them to march.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- A hand-lettered sign outside Forum Health's Northside Medical Center proclaims the constant vigilance of its striking nurses: "YGDNA is here to stay."
Lawn chairs are set up outside the hospital round the clock, and there are coolers and plastic sheeting in case it rains.
Missing, much of the time, are the pickets.
Striking Forum nurses, members of the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association, admit they're finding it more difficult to keep their picket stations manned at Northside and Beeghly Medical Park in Boardman as their walkout moves into its third month.
The numbers swell for special events, such as the rally July 1 marking the two-month anniversary of the strike when union officials say they had 300 nurses and supporters on the picket lines.
Not many otherwise: But day to day, and overnight, the union often has only two or three strikers on its line. At times there are none.
One reason, YGDNA officials say, is that a big percentage of the members are working elsewhere, many in the Cleveland area.
"Hundreds of our members have found temporary jobs to make ends meet, and that's OK with us," said Michelle Prater, a union spokeswoman and public relations director of the Ohio Nurses Association.
"We'd rather have them working and able to pay their bills than out on the picket line."
Another reason for the absenteeism on the line is related to the first -- the nurses don't get strike benefits for picketing.
YGDNA and its parent union, the Ohio Nurses Association, don't have the money for a hefty strike fund like some larger labor unions do, said Jean Troutman-Poole, an ONA spokeswoman.
Prater said other nurses unions around the country, in general, also do not have strike funds to pay pickets.
Hardship cases: Joyce Shaffer, a YGDNA officer, said the local has been using the limited funds it has available to assist in hardship cases, usually paying COBRA coverage to maintain health insurance for striking nurses who can't afford to pay for it. Union members' coverage was suspended when they walked out May 1.
"Picketing is voluntary," Shaffer said. "We can't pay anybody, so we can't mandate them to picket."
Bob Bernat, secretary-treasurer of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 377, said strike benefits are a "huge factor" in getting striking workers to man picket lines.
"I think unions that don't have strong strike funds have members who don't picket. It's that simple," he said.
Bernat said striking service workers at St. Elizabeth Health Center and other Humility of Mary Health Partners facilities were getting weekly strike benefits ranging from $125 to $205 during their 12-day strike in May. Picket duty was a requirement for payment.
"Many of our members had temporary jobs during the strike, but they still made it to the picket line," he said. "Those people probably didn't miss a beat in paying their bills."
But YGDNA officials argued that their picket numbers are not as crucial as the numbers crossing them -- they say only six nurses have crossed to go to work since the strike began May 1.
"That's six out of 771, that's phenomenal," Shaffer said. "That shows the support. That's where our strength is. If we had 50 crossing the picket line, that's what would really hurt us.
"I don't think Forum Health cares if there are big numbers on the picket lines or not. I think the only way we're going to get to them to listen is to hit them in the pocketbook."
Progress reported: Evonne Woloshyn, Forum's senior vice president for marketing and community relations, said the two sides met for 11 hours Thursday and made some progress. They planned to return to the bargaining table this morning.
Shaffer noted that the nurses' picket line is not trying to stop patients from entering the hospital. It functions differently from a picket line at a manufacturing facility where strikers are trying to keep trucks from coming in and out.
"We understand that some people, because of their health insurance, must go in to get care," she said.
"We appreciate those who can go somewhere else and choose not to cross our picket line, but we've never tried to stop anybody going in for care."