NEWBURYPORT — Market Square was Ground Zero this weekend for what is arguably becoming a pitched battle for attention between those supporting Anna Jaques Hospital and an electrical union protesting the hospital's hiring of a non-union contractor.
Yesterday, a handful of members from the newly formed Citizens in Support of Anna Jaques Hospital were holding up signs and waving at passing motorists. A few yards away, a few International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 union members were standing behind a banner reading "Anna Jaques Exposed," a reference to a website the union has created.. Towering above the union workers was a roughly 9-foot-tall inflatable gray rat.
For weeks, IBEW Local 103 members have been a Market Square fixture, protesting the hospital's decision to hire nonunion electrical workers for its $15 million renovation project. Union workers have also been spotted in several other locations around the city including High Street, near the Highland Avenue hospital and outside the State Street district courthouse, and in Haverhill.
The protests, which began before the hospital's hiring decision, have run the gamut from workers holding up long banners that target individual doctors who have settled malpractice suits to the inflatable rat that has been accompanying the protesters during some weekends. The union has also taken its message to the skies, paying for an airplane to fly a banner promoting the union's anti-Anna Jaques Hospital website. The banner was again flown yesterday over the downtown area and other parts of the city.
Shortly after The Daily News reported late last month that IBEW Local 103 would continue its protests for another year, local businessman Michael Roy, co-owner of Haley's Ice Cream and former owner of Michael's Harborside, decided to start a pro-Anna Jaques Hospital group.
Since then, supporters have been seen throughout the city holding up signs. Business owners, including two on Liberty Street, have placed them inside shop windows. And at least one man has begun handing out business cards decrying the union's tactics, distributing them just yards away from where some of the protesters have been standing.
On Saturday, more than a dozen pro-Anna Jaques Hospital members came to Market Square to show their support for the hospital, dwarfing the number of union members there that day. Supporters began holding signs at 6:45 a.m. and stayed there in shifts until 6 p.m. On occasion, passers-by offered to hold signs for a time, allowing supporters a chance to rest, according to Citizens in Support of Anna Jaques Hospital member Mike Cronan.
"It was overwhelming, the support from drive-bys," Cronan said yesterday.
"Yesterday was huge," Citizens in Support of Anna Jaques Hospital member Suzanne Cap added. "We saw Saturday as an opportunity to come out."
In response to the overwhelming presence of pro-Anna Jaques Hospital supporters on Saturday, union members came with the cartoonish-looking rat to Market Square yesterday and inflated it so motorists traveling on Merrimac Street couldn't help but see it.
"Today they brought out the big guns," Cronan said, referring to the rat.
Cronan added there were no altercations between the two groups of protesters over the weekend.
When approached for comment by a reporter yesterday, union members declined, referring all questions to union representative Louis Antonellis. But one union member acknowledged the rat could be seen as somewhat over-the-top. Antonellis couldn't be immediately reached for comment.
In only a few minutes' time, several motorists honked their horns in support of Anna Jaques Hospital and one motorist yelled to hospital supporters to buy an inflatable cat to counter the union's inflatable rat. Another man walking through Market Square with his two children stopped to shake the hand of Cap and thanked her and others for their campaign.