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R.I. Hospital Walkout Prompts Governor To Activate National Guardsmen

February 20, 1989

CRANSTON, R.I. (AP) _ Gov. Edward D. DiPrete called out the National Guard to help staff the state General Hospital overnight after union workers rejected an offer to settle a staffing dispute and set up picket lines.

James P. Benedict, the hospital administrator, said only 26 of a normal shift of 78 licensed practical nurses and attendants showed up for work at 7 a.m. today. They were augmented by 94 Guard troops.

It was the second time in three weeks that the governor had assigned Guard troops to help out at the hospital, which provides long-term care to more than 400 patients, because of labor trouble.

The state filed a request for a court order to halt the work stoppage, but there was no immediate action on the request. Judge Antonio S. Almeida met behind closed doors with both sides for more than an hour. Lawyers said later that he granted the union’s request that it be given a day to prepare a defense.

″While as of yet no critical patient need has not been met and no emergency that could not be addressed has occurred, there is a critical need for Local 1350 members to return to work before an individual patient has irreversible harm,″ the state’s complaint said.

Seven of the Guard troops on duty today have nursing training; the others are doing non-medical tasks such as feeding, washing and dressing patients.

″They gave us the easier ones first to get us used to it,″ said Sgt. Robin Trudel of Warwick as she fed an elderly patient.

″I think this is totally uncalled for,″ Connie Prior, 56, a quadraplegic who has been at the hospital for two years, said of the job action. ″Number one should be the patients.″

Twelve patients needing intensive care, most on respirators, were moved to other hospitals.

A strike by state hospital workers would be illegal. The union called today’s job action merely a protest, but Benedict countered, ″Once you get those picket lines out there and they’re keeping people out, I call it a strike.″

State police said a half-dozen troopers were called in to keep hospital entrances open after picket lines were set up. There had been no reports of violence and abut a dozen pickets were at the hospital’s main entrance at 7 a.m.

Members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1350 are locked in a battle with the state over staffing levels at the hospital. The union has about 1,300 members, about of half of whom work at General Hospital.

They voted by a 4-to-1 margin to reject a proposed 53-cent-an-hour raise in return for concessions on staffing, including greater management leeway in transferring staffers from ward to ward and reduction in overtime hours.

Union President Joseph G. Fargnoli called the raise offer ″insulting,″ and the union claims several workers already have been injured because of an increased workload.

Negotiations broke down Friday, and no new talks were scheduled.

Workers staged a four-day sickout that ended Jan. 31 only when Guard troops also were ordered by DiPrete to help staff the wards.

Benedict called today’s action ″an abandonment of patients″ and said it would result in disciplinary action. But one picket who refused to give his name called Benedict’s comment ″an intimidation factor. We expected that.″

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