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Union’s inflated ‘fat cat’ part of contract protest at Catholic Health HQ

About 30 nurses and other workers frustrated with the slow pace of contract negotiations at three area Catholic Health System hospitals protested outside the system’s headquarters Monday morning – and they brought a large, inflatable friend to make a statement.

Members of the Communications Workers of America union paid for a custom-made, inflatable “fat cat,” clutching a nurse by the neck, and displayed it Monday morning for about two hours outside Catholic Health’s headquarters and training center at Oak and Genesee streets, where thousands of commuters pour into downtown Buffalo each day from the Kensington Expressway.

Representatives of workers in four bargaining units at Mercy Hospital of Buffalo, Kenmore Mercy Hospital and Sisters of Charity Hospital St. Joseph Campus who have worked without a contract for as long as 10 months also marched with signs saying “What’s gone wrong at Catholic Health?” and “Safe Staffing” to advertise their concerns. The protest came several hours before balloting began on a two-day vote on whether to authorize a strike at Mercy Hospital.

“People want a fair contract without concessions,” said Debora M. Hayes, area director for the CWA.

Catholic Health spokeswoman JoAnn Cavanaugh declined to comment on the inflatable “fat cat” that was set up outside Catholic Health’s building. But in a statement, the system said it has “consistently bargained in good faith.”

The protest began at about 7 a.m. Monday with members of CWA Local 1168, which represents registered nurses at St. Joseph Campus, and Local 1133, which represents technical workers at Kenmore Mercy and registered nurses and technical, service and clerical workers at Mercy Hospital. The CWA employees received support from other area labor unions.

The workers set up the inflatable “fat cat” on a grassy area at the Catholic Health headquarters building that is in a public right of way. Hayes said a Catholic Health security guard came out and told them, incorrectly, that they couldn’t be there and then called Buffalo police. When police arrived, however, an officer said the protesters could stay as long as they didn’t block pedestrians on the sidewalk or impede traffic, she said.

Cavanaugh confirmed security called police.

“I think it was a matter of public safety. It’s a dangerous intersection. It’s an off-ramp to the 33, and people cross the street there,” she said.

The protest ended around 9 a.m., when a crew deflated the “fat cat” and took it away. Hayes said because the union owns the cat, it plans to use it again at future rallies.

Hayes said the protest grew out of a sense of frustration with the status of contract negotiations.

The oldest of the contracts for the four bargaining units expired last August and the most recent expired last month. Compounding the problem, she said, is the frayed relationship between management and labor at Catholic Health.

About 2,200 registered nurses and technical, service and clerical workers at Mercy Hospital are voting Monday and Tuesday to provide union leaders with the authority to call a strike.

If the union opts to go out on strike, it would have to provide a 10-day notice to Catholic Health, according to the system.

Catholic Health, in its statement, said it has presented contract proposals that represent economic realities while still taking into account the dedication of its employees.

Referring to the negotiations taking place at Mercy Hospital, the statement said, “The cost increases that the union is proposing are neither realistic nor sustainable and we cannot jeopardize the future of our health care ministry by agreeing to these unreasonable demands.”