By Scott Sieber
On Tuesday, City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) intended to hold an open forum with nurses, the media and the labor representative from the New York State Nurses Association in the hospital's conference room to hear their concerns, but when he arrived at the facility, hospital officials said the group was not welcome inside.The hospital issued a statement saying that it was in the process of negotiations with the union and had appointed a federal mediator to assist both sides in reaching an agreement.”We are confident that this matter will be resolved shortly to everyone's satisfaction,” said the statement issued by Flushing Hospital spokesman Ole Pedersen. “It is not Flushing Hospital's practice to discuss ongoing labor negotiations issues with the media and any negotiations will take place in the proper labor forum, not in the press.”Labor representative Thomas Jennings said the meeting was designed only for the union, Liu and the press, not the hospital management.Liu, who criticized the hospital's refusal to allow the meeting to take place, stood outside the front entrance with the nurses to speak with reporters.”It's most unfortunate that at the last minute the management of the hospital has pulled the plug on their meeting,” he said. “This is a sign of bad faith and it will not be looked upon positively by myself, and I'm sure by other elected officials in this area.”Jennings said there are two more scheduled meetings with hospital management to try to hammer through the stalemate and come to an agreement on a contract. However, if no resolution is reached, he said nurses will begin to picket on Jan. 27.”I'm sure the hospital and the community does not want to see any kind of walkout or job action,” Liu said. “But when people's backs are up against the wall, that is something that I fear might happen. We can't sustain something like that.”For a four-year period beginning in 1996, Flushing Hospital faced bankruptcy due to operational and financial difficulties, but pulled through after Jamaica Hospital appointed a manager to take over control from New York Hospital Queens. The new management secured funding from elected officials and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The change helped bring the facility out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and it reported its first profit in years.Jennings said at the last bargaining session Friday, little movement was made on either side. The union then sent the mediator a notice that the nurses may begin picketing later this month, he said.”Between now and then, we'll have two negotiating sessions and we'll just have to see what happens,” he said.”Any kind of picket is harmful and we don't want it to get to that point,” Liu said. “This hospital is vitally needed in this community and we don't want to see any kind of disruption to the care they provide here in Flushing.”The nurses' contract expired on June 30, 2005.Nurses cited several sticking points in negotiations, including a 4 percent wage increase, pensions, staffing and health benefits.If nurses decide to picket, those standing outside the hospital Tuesday said the nurses on the picket lines would only be off-duty nurses.”Patient care comes first,” said Jennings. “You can't go out while you're on duty. It's impossible.”Liu said there are also a number of Asian immigrant nurses who are afraid to express their support of the nurses because of their immigration status.”I have heard too many reports that because they are reliant upon the hospital to have their visas, they are not willing to speak up against any kind of unfairness the management has brought upon them. That is something we will certainly be investigating.”Nurses said in previous years, new hires were among the highest paid in the borough with salaries of $59,000. Today, they said, starting salaries are around $57,000 due to givebacks.”We'd like a fair contract,” said Marian Fitzpatrick, a 28-year nurse at Flushing Hospital. “They're not negotiating with us. It's just not fair to work without a contract. It's essential to the community to have this hospital because it employs a lot of people in the community.”Reach reporter Scott Sieber by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.