NEWBURYPORT — City councilors running for re-election this fall are warning Massachusetts AFL-CIO officials they will not accept union endorsements in response to months of anti-Anna Jaques Hospital protests by members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103.
Councilors Tom Jones, Bob Cronin and Brian Derrivan made the intentions of the entire council clear Thursday during a meeting of the AFL-CIO's Merrimack Valley Central Labor Council in Lowell when they presented labor council president Paul Georges with a letter.
Jones, who is a member of a carpenters union, said yesterday it was obvious to him and other councilors that the IBEW Local 103's tactics went beyond a labor dispute over hiring practices and has become a test of wills between the city and the union.
Jones also said it was hard for him and others on the council to empathize for unions in general because of the negative impact of IBEW Local 103.
"It (IBEW Local 103) runs against what organized labor should be doing," Jones said.
The Merrimack Valley Central Labor Council serves as an advocacy group for union members in dozens of North Shore and Metro Boston area communities, including Newburyport, Methuen, Lawrence, Burlington, Concord and Amesbury. According to its website, among the labor council's goals is to mobilize against anti-union employers, work on community issues, recruit and support candidates who champion working families, and organize grassroots political action to push for adoption of worker-friendly initiatives and policies on a national, state and local level.
For months, members of IBEW Local 103 have been protesting the Highland Avenue hospital's decision to hire nonunion electrical workers as part of its roughly $15 million renovation project. What started out as union members standing behind banners directing people to a website that highlights malpractice payments made by hospital doctors has expanded to include flyovers by a rented plane and the display of a 9-foot-tall inflatable rat balloon in the middle of Market Square.
IBEW Local 103 business manager Louis Antonellis said the purpose of the protests has been to shed light on the hospital's double standard for hiring a nonunion company that doesn't ensure health care benefits, while treating patients' health care needs.
Antonellis said the councilors' threat to turn down union endorsements was irrelevant because unions wouldn't endorse a candidate who felt the way the local officials did.
"They wouldn't get an endorsement anyway, so the point is moot," Antonellis said. "They're not worthy of an endorsement."
The union's tactics have generated much anger throughout the city and led to the formation of a pro-hospital group, Citizens In Support of Anna Jaques Hospital, by local businessman Michael Roy. The union also angered Mayor Donna Holaday, who was particularly incensed when the union's rented plane flew over Newburyport High School during graduation exercises and union members interfered with the city's Memorial Day exercises.
City councilors have also been vocal in their criticism of the union's tactics but conceded there was little they could do to break up Constitution-protected freedom of speech.
More recently, the union has shown some signs of softening its stance as it has shelved the anti-doctor website banner for a more generic banner that directs people to another website that doesn't specifically target Anna Jaques Hospital.
But it appears councilors aren't being swayed by the union's decision to switch tactics. Instead, councilors are focusing their attention not on the electrical union itself but the state branch of the organization that has considerable influence and power nationwide.
Jones said the labor council indicated it would take the councilors' concerns under advisement, but that it wasn't authorized to intercede with the dispute between IBEW Local 103 and the city.
Jones conceded the loss of potential labor endorsements would hurt, but he said there were other considerations in play.
Cronin said it was a tough decision for him to make. "But I think it was the right thing to do," he said.
Jones is currently an at-large councilor who is running unopposed for the Ward 4 slot soon to be vacated by Ed Cameron. Cameron is one of eight candidates running for five at-large seats. Others running for an at-large seat are incumbents Ari Herzog, Kathleen O'Connor Ives, Steven Hutcheson and Barry Connell and residents Dick Sullivan Jr., Larry Giunta and Michael Early. Cronin (Ward 3), Allison Heartquist (Ward 1), Thomas O'Brien (Ward 5), Gregory Earls (Ward 2) and Derrivan (Ward 6) are running unopposed.
Roy said his group was very glad to hear that the councilors had taken such a bold step.
"We certainly admire their courage to take a step like that because it may hurt them politically," Roy said.