NEWBURYPORT — In the months since union electrical workers began protesting Anna Jaques Hospital's decision to hire nonunion electrical workers as part of a $15 million renovation project, hospital officials have been careful not to respond publicly.
Behind the scenes, however, the hospital's frustration with the situation has led it to ask state lawmakers for help. Newburyport's two state lawmakers confirmed they were approached by Board of Trustees Chairman George Ellison in June and asked if they could contact the state attorney general's office and ask whether the protests had reached a point where they may be considered illegal.
The attorney general's office determined that nothing could be done.
The picketing began in March, as the hospital sought bidders for its $15 million expansion project. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 held banners highlighting a union-created website that details malpractice payments made by Anna Jaques Hospital doctors over the years. The protesters were occasionally accompanied by an inflatable giant rat. The union workers picketed in several areas around the city that had connections to the hospital, such as street entrances and affiliated doctors offices.
But by June, after the hospital officially made its decision to hire a nonunion contractor, IBEW Local 103's campaign expanded beyond the hospital. In recent weeks, City Hall and Market Square have also been targeted for picketing. The 9-foot-tall inflatable rat has occasionally been situated in the bullnose area of Market Square and at an entrance to the waterfront boardwalk, and a rented airplane has been flying over the city every Sunday with a banner that directs people to the anti-hospital website. Neighbors who live near the hospital's Low Street entrance have complained that union workers have caused nuisances.
The union has also continued to target doctors affiliated with the hospital, posting information about malpractice suits. Fliers criticizing the hospital's board of directors have been put on car windshields all over downtown Newburyport.
With the exception of a letter the hospital released when the protest began in March that called the union's tactics bullying, Anna Jaques officials have remained noticeably restrained in their public response, consistently declining to comment.
Privately, the hospital has sought to discover whether the union's tactics are illegal. State Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, and state Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport, acknowledged they received a request from Ellison to talk with the attorney general's office.
"We did get a request from George regarding the protests and what, if anything, could be done to intervene," Baddour said.
Costello said he and Baddour spoke on multiple occasions regarding Ellison's request, and it was determined the best course of action would be an informal call to the state's attorney general's office. Costello said it has become apparent to him the protests had morphed into something other than criticizing Anna Jaques Hospital and were designed to intimidate other hospitals preparing renovation projects.
"Hey, do you want to go through this? Do you want your names on a website?" Costello said. "It's almost extortion."
Baddour called the attorney general's office, where he served as an assistant attorney general, and had numerous conversations regarding the union protests.
While Baddour called the union's actions outrageous and offensive, he said it was agreed that they didn't "rise to a criminal level at this point."
Reached last week, Ellison acknowledged asking Baddour and Costello to contact the attorney general regarding the union's tactics but downplayed the request, calling it an attempt merely to gather information.
"We just wanted to know what our rights were," Ellison said. "And we let it go at that."
IBEW Local 103 spokesman Louis Antonellis didn't return a phone call seeking comment. And an attempt to reach Antonellis via union members standing outside Newburyport City Hall was unsuccessful.
In separate interviews, Baddour and Costello made it abundantly clear they were fed up with the union's tactics and implored them to stop.
Costello said the protests were giving labor movements a black eye and chided Local 103 for trying to interfere with day-to-day life in Newburyport. Baddour also let loose with a string of less-than-flattering words regarding the union, saying they were trying to embarrass a cherished community hospital.
"It's outrageous; they're serving no purpose whatsoever," Baddour said last week. "I've been very vocal in my opposition and my utter disgust about them doing that type of behavior. It's 2011, not 1950."
Baddour and Costello are not alone in their contempt for IBEW Local 103 tactics.
In recent weeks, Newburyport City Councilors Gregory Earls, Ari Herzog and Bob Cronin have publicly chided the union. And last month, several residents, led by Haley's Ice Cream owner Michael Roy, formed Citizens in Support of Anna Jaques Hospital.
Since its formation, pro-hospital supporters holding signs have gone toe-to-toe with union protesters standing within feet of each other in Market Square. Pro-hospital supporters have distributed hundreds of lawn signs throughout the city, and volunteers have been seen holding signs near Nick's Pizza off Storey Avenue.
Roy said publicly that he and his growing number of volunteers were determined to protest the protesters until they left Newburyport for good.
In anticipation of Yankee Homecoming, organizers asked both camps to take their protesting activities out of the bullnose area until the weeklong festival ends. According to one Yankee Homecoming official, both sides have agreed to move elsewhere.