NEWBURYPORT — The union protesting Anna Jaques Hospital's decision to hire nonunion electrical workers as part of its $15 million renovation project has been conspicuously absent from the downtown area the last several days.
But those hoping that members of the International Brother of Electrical Workers Local 103 have decided to pack up their 9-foot-tall inflatable rat and leave the city for good are in for a disappointment. A union representative said yesterday they would be back protesting today.
IBEW Local 103 representative Louis Antonellis said the union decided to take a few days off after he was asked by Mayor Donna Holaday to remove the inflatable rat from the Market Square area for the rest of Yankee Homecoming, the eight-day celebration that wrapped up Sunday.
"We decided that, talking to the mayor, we would pull back a little bit to let the people of Newburyport enjoy their weekend," Antonellis said.
Holaday confirmed the conversation, saying the inflatable rat, which was last seen outside the Firehouse Center for the Performing Arts near the beginning of the Homecoming celebration, was creating a safety hazard and taking up too much space, as thousands of people a day visited the downtown area.
Months of back and forth
Prior to Yankee Homecoming, IBEW Local 103 had been stationing its large, gray rat inside the bullnose area of Market Square during several consecutive weekends.
The union has been upping the ante in its protests over the past few months, staging rallies during the city's Memorial Day parade and renting a plane to fly a banner highlighting an anti-hospital website during Newburyport High School graduation exercises. Like the inflatable rat, the flyovers have been part of the weekend landscape for weeks now.
Those activities and other statements made by the union infuriated Holaday, who said yesterday she has been exchanging letters and other correspondence with Antonellis for months.
Holaday said she was fairly outraged by union activities during the Memorial Day parade and graduation exercises. In June, Holaday penned a letter to the union detailing her disgust and asking the organization to stop the protests. In the letter, dated June 16, she also expressed her belief that the union was turning residents against them.
"I do not know what you hope to accomplish by this display of negativity in portraying our local hospital and physicians, and if you expect to generate sympathy for unions, it is working against you," she wrote.
"On Memorial Day, we were walking with veterans and their families to the waterfront to place a wreath for those who died in service of our country. Front and center were your members detracting from the profound and moving nature of this event. And on graduating day for our high school seniors and families, you interrupted the ceremony with multiple flyovers with your banners — it was appalling."
Later, according to the mayor, Antonellis and Holaday met in person. At that meeting, Antonellis asked Holaday whether she could use her influence to somehow bring Anna Jaques Hospital back to the negotiating table regarding potentially hiring the union workers. Holaday said she declined, saying it wasn't her job to act as mediator.
A Homecoming break
Just before the start of Yankee Homecoming, the festival's chairwoman in charge of vendors, Janet Richey, asked both pro- and anti-Anna Jaques Hospital demonstrators to clear out of Market Square's bullnose area for the duration of the annual event.
Richey said both sides agreed, which prompted IBEW Local 103 to move the giant rat out of the bullnose and across the street outside the Firehouse Center.
Near or during the first few days of Homecoming, Holaday then asked the union to remove the inflatable rat from in front of the Firehouse, saying it could present a safety hazard and restrict the flow of pedestrian traffic.
Holaday said she did not ask the union to temporarily stop its protests during Homecoming, rather just to move the rat out of downtown.
The mayor said she was pleased the union went above and beyond what she asked, but added she preferred the union wouldn't return.
"I wish they would leave the city," Holaday said.
Citizens In Support of Anna Jaques Hospital, a pro-hospital group formed by local businessman Michael Roy, meanwhile, remained a presence in the bullnose during Yankee Homecoming, selling banners and lawn signs from a rented booth.
Yesterday, Roy defended the decision to man a booth in Market Square, saying his group wasn't protesting but rather selling its wares just like the dozen or so other vendors.
"They could have done that also," Roy said, referring to IBEW Local 103.
In addition to manning a booth on the bullnose, Citizens In Support of Anna Jaques Hospital had a very visible presence during the entire Homecoming celebration. Dozens of supporters wearing pro-hospital T-shirts were seen throughout the week, and the group donated $500 to Sunday's Yankee Homecoming parade, which they also marched in.
"It would be our greatest wish that we'd go back to our normal lives, but I guess we'll wait and see," Roy said.
A separate protest
The disappearance of IBEW Local 103 protesters early this week coincided with the arrival of another group of Newburyport picketers representing dozens of the roughly 45,000 Verizon workers who went on strike across the northeast and mid-Atlantic states Sunday morning. The 45,000 workers walked off their jobs after months of contract negotiations with Verizon failed to reach a desired conclusion.
About 25 to 30 Verizon employees of the communication giant's landline sectors have been outside Verizon offices on Green Street and Graf Road in Newburyport. They are members of two separate unions: Communications Workers of America and IBEW Local 2321.
Reached yesterday on Green Street, IBEW Local 2321 workers said they had no idea whether IBEW Local 103's decision to clear out of the city and halt its protest of Anna Jaques for a few days was related to their protests.