Large signs, bright fliers and 15-foot rats confronted anyone visiting the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in the last month. The inflatable rodents and informational notices are part of a protest by the Sheet Metal Workers Union Local No. 15, along with the Frost and Heat Insulators Union Local No. 67. The unions have targeted Moffitt and a subcontractor it uses for construction projects, claiming unfair treatment of workers.
“The hospital is using contractors that we have labor disputes with,” said Sam McIntosh, marketing representative for the Sheet Metal Workers. “(The contractors) provide substandard wages and benefits for their workers. We urge the hospital to use union contractors.”
The tactics used in the protest address issues outside the realm of construction, however. The protestor’s fliers encourage anyone inside Moffitt to report suspicious activity ranging from malpractice to sexual harassment. They detail malpractice cases against Moffitt and claim that treatment at the center is overpriced.
McIntosh defended the link between labor disputes and the quality of health care at Moffitt.
“We think that the hospital is contributing to the lack of health care (in America) by contracting work out to companies that don’t provide full family health care coverage,” McIntosh said.
Moffitt would not respond to specific allegations, but released a general statement regarding the protest: “Moffitt has no direct involvement in the selection (of subcontractors). We expect them to use subcontractors of the highest quality and best cost but ultimately, the construction manager has the final word on who is chosen to do the subcontract work.”
The subcontractor in question is Coastal Mechanical Services, a Florida-based contracting company that specializes in mechanical work such as plumbing and piping. Al Osterhout, president of Coastal Mechanical Services, said he was aware that an “informational picket” was taking place, but was surprised to find out that his company was the target.
“We pay very competitive wages and we have phenomenal health care coverage with Blue Cross Blue Shield,” Osterhout said. “(McIntosh) doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about.”
For Moffitt, the details are irrelevant. Moffitt officials said they feel the cancer center should have no part in the union workers’ feud.
“We think it is wrong for them to bother our employees, patients and visitors and try to involve Moffitt and the public in their dispute with the contractor,” Moffitt’s administration wrote.
According to their statement, however, Moffit has no choice but to endure the protest.
“We hope and have asked them to cease their activity,” it read. “However, it appears they are within their First Amendment rights. This is a union tactic used to garner attention for their cause.”
The Sheet Metal Workers Union has ignored Moffitt’s pleas and has maintained an escalating – albeit inconsistent – operation. The protestors disappear from time to time, sometimes for as long as a week, only to return with more brazen tactics. The most recent addition to their campaign is several large, inflatable rats with “Coastal” prominently displayed across the front.
The protestors did not explain why they are targeting subcontractor Coastal Mechanical Services and not Skanska, the main contractor that manages Moffitt’s $87 million expansion project.
“We have no issue with Skanska,” McIntosh said. “We are just trying to protect workers’ rights.”
The union has not outlined specific demands, but is determined to maintain a presence on USF’s campus.
“Sometimes these things take months,” McIntosh said. “We are going to be out here for the long haul.”