SPRING HILL — The grim reaper perched in front of a local hospital is a jarring image to behold.
That's the point, say union officials who have demonstrated in front of Oak Hill Hospital for several days this month.
Members of the Sheet Metal Workers' Local 15 have congregated on the shoulder of Cortez Boulevard about seven or eight times in the last two weeks, setting up black-robed figures and coffins, along with banners warning passing motorists of "grave problems at Oak Hill Hospital."
The goal, said union organizer Sam McIntosh, is to draw attention to the hospital's decision to hire nonunion contractors for its $50 million expansion project, and to make the case that the for-profit hospital compromises care for the sake of the bottom line.
"We found a connection between corporate greed and health care," McIntosh said. "The hospital is in the health care industry. Don't you think they would use contractors that provide full family health care and wages that put their workers firmly in the middle class?"
Union members wearing lab coats have passed out fliers with the heading noting that Oak Hill has paid millions of dollars in medical malpractice settlements, has higher than average infection rates, and levies "high charges and markups." The handouts cite data available online and include links to websites.
McIntosh said he reached out to Oak Hill CEO Mickey Smith several times.
"At least talk to us," he said. "We believe our contractors had a good number on the bid."
When Smith didn't respond, the union decided to demonstrate, McIntosh said.
Smith declined an interview request by the Tampa Bay Times, but did say yes when asked whether unionized contractors have been selected for other parts of the expansion project. Oak Hill spokesman Rich Linkul sent a statement.
"The current activities of the Sheet Metal Workers' Local Union #15 in front of Oak Hill Hospital has nothing to do with the quality of health care provided," the statement said. "It has everything to do with the fact that a union subcontractor did not get this work and, as a consequence, the union is losing out on dues money.
"The contractor and the hospital made a fiscally responsible decision in selecting a quality subcontractor who does good work at a good price," the statement said. "It just didn't happen to be a contractor whose employees were members of the union."
Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers' Local 67 has joined the effort, which expanded last week to another front.
On Wednesday, representatives from both unions stood in front of the Silverthorn community, accompanied by a large inflatable rat brought by Local 67. A sign read: "Shame on you, Dr. Palmer."
Trade unions for years have used inflatable rats as a symbol to scold companies using nonunion workers. Their target this time was Dr. Kevin Palmer, Oak Hill's chief of surgery, who lives in the gated community on Barclay Avenue.
McIntosh said he called Palmer to get the doctor to lobby Smith for their cause. Palmer was "very irate and very anti-union," McIntosh said, so the union decided to demonstrate in front of Silverthorn.
In an interview with the Times, Palmer said he only expressed opposition to the two unions' actions.
"I told him I thought their tactics were misleading and I didn't agree with them," Palmer said.
Coffins and symbols of death scare patients and children, Palmer said, and wearing lab coats misleads passersby that doctors are involved in the demonstration. To target him where he lives, he said, is a blatant attempt to intimidate.
The "street theater" at Oak Hill is an effective way to bring attention to serious problems at the hospital, and targeting high-level employees who could influence administrators is sometimes necessary, McIntosh said.
"Of course he doesn't like it. But we have the right to do it," he said. "We don't like it that our members are losing their houses, that they can't even buy Christmas presents because they were laid off. Sometimes you have to use tactics like this to get your message across."
A county code enforcement officer gave McIntosh a warning citation Wednesday. The union has a right to protest on the right-of-way, but the props blocked motorists' view of oncoming traffic, said Hernando County public safety director Mike Nickerson.
The union disputes the county's authority to issue the citation and is consulting with its attorney, McIntosh said.
County code enforcement does not have jurisdiction on the Cortez Boulevard right-of-way in front of Oak Hill because it's a state road, but law enforcement personnel could ask the union to take down props there if they become a hazard, Nickerson said.
McIntosh said the union plans to be back in front of the hospital as early as this week.
Based in Tampa, Local 15 has in recent years used similar tactics in the Tampa Bay area.
In 2008, the union set up two inflatable rats protesting the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute's hiring of nonunion subcontracting companies to do its expansion work. The rats showed up the following year in front of GE Aviation in Clearwater.
Also in 2009, McIntosh wrote letters to St. Petersburg College's then-president, Carl Kuttler Jr., objecting to the fact that the college hired nonunion labor to work on its expansion. When Kuttler didn't respond, McIntosh and another organizer went to the Pinellas Park design firm owned by Kuttler's son and handed out leaflets that asked if recipients had experienced or witnessed, as they put it, illegal aliens, shoddy construction practices, contractor kickbacks, "or anything else that may be illegal or unethical."
Information from Times files was used in this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]