“Please stay out of the street!” shouted the protest organizer. “We don’t want you to get hurt, even though we are in front of a hospital.”
It was reaching dusk at Day Two of the nurse’s strike at Pomona Valley Community Hospital. Passing cars honked their approval at the sign-wielding picketers, which consisted of RNs from Service Employees International Union, Local 121RN, and their families. Little children dressed in purple t-shirts that said “Registered Nurses are the ・ of Patient Care” wielded whistles and waved and cheered.
Whereas on Day One the street was lined with TV news vans, all were absent when the strike took a distinctly personal turn at 7:00pm, when the nurses gathered to pay tribute to one of their own, Lillian Ferguson. Ferguson, an ER nurse, is fighting cancer and the union alleges PVCH terminated her employment, when she refused to resign after using her year’s allotment of sick days. In response, the nurses organized a candlelight vigil in her honor.
Sue Weinstein, executive director of SEIU Local 121RN, told of Ferguson’s dilemma from a podium, which drew a series of cheers and boos from the crowd.
“When the hospital found out we were making her story public they called Lillian and asked for her permission to issue a rebuttal,” said Weinstein.
“Boo!” went the crowd.
“She responded—no!” assured Weinstein.
“Yay!” they cheered.
While Weinstein was speaking, a group of hospital workers gathered outside the maternity ward. They seemed pleased at the public response. One man, however, was ambivalent to the strikers, more concerned about a patient about to give birth. On his cell phone he could be heard saying, “They were inducing her like crazy.”
Weinstein eventually gave way to other speakers, friends of Ferguson, one named Mickey who told a story of Ferguson going to great personal lengths to separate a young child from an abusive parent. Another friend said Ferguson needed her job for the 20% discount she receives as an employee, extremely vital to cover her medical costs.
Ferguson, a bit ironically, had been present at the hospital on the first day of the strike, not as a protester, but as a patient in the Cancer Care Ward. A friend said she would like to continue her care at PVCH because she trusts the staff.
Ferguson wasn’t present at the vigil, but many of her family members were, and when they were introduced, even some of the more stoic of the nurses, who deal with pain and suffering every single day, took a moment to weep, even as various speakers were interrupted by a nonstop cascade of car horns.
When the presentation finished, lit candles were passed around. The idea was to march all the way around the hospital. This is where things became a bit disorganized, as there was confusion over which direction to march. Plus, the light wind kept blowing out the candles.
Eventually, a group of maybe three-dozen wound their way around towards the east entrance of the hospital. As they passed by the emergency room parking lot, a chartered bus, presumably filled with contract nurses, passed by.
“Candles up!” someone shouted. “Let them know it’s not all about the money.”
The group stopped and gathered at the main parking lot back exit, which was heavily guarded by private security personnel. The sheer amount of security galled many of the strikers, who by this time had been joined by the mayor of Pomona, Norma Torres.
“Look at how many they have hired! They even have one on the roof! A sniper!” one woman complained. Another man added, “With what they paid for the security, they could settle the strike.”
The strikers massed at the exit for a while. A woman exiting in a large truck drove up and, unintimidated by the protesters, came very close to bumping one. Meanwhile, Torres, who was there with her family, happily chatted with the picketers.
“She’s a strong supporter of the union,” one woman said.
Eventually, the group moved on. A nurse who has worked at PVCH since 1973 wondered how the GM workers were doing. When told their strike had been settled, after they yielded many of their healthcare benefits, she said that the RNs had done much the same thing.
“That’s when we made it an issue of nurse-to-patient ratios.” She also said that hospital management was successful in discouraging the service and tech nurses from organizing. She was grateful to have Weinstein as chief negotiator. “She’s one tough cookie.”
Finally, the march wound down at the main entrance, and basked in the continued support of horn-honking residents, while trying to be respectful to those entering that either were not supporting or merely confused by sign-waving children.
Far from being restless, the children seemed to be the most focused and energetic participants at the end, waving their signs, belting out their whistles and yelling at passing cars.
Then everyone was thanked for their efforts, and they packed up for the night vowing to return again in the morning.