Elected officials — including former labor leader Mayor Martin J. Walsh — joined picketers outside Tufts Medical Center Saturday morning to support staff awaiting a contract resolution four days after they launched the first nurses’ strike at a major Boston hospital more than three decades.
Walsh, Massachusetts congressmen Stephen Lynch and Michael E. Capuano, state legislators, and political candidates joined about 500 nurses and supporters as they lined Washington Street in Chinatown carrying picket signs and chanting slogans.
Walsh, a former leader of the building trades union who had offered to help mediate the dispute, told the crowd he was concerned because there is no end in sight to negotiations between the union — the Massachusetts Nurses Association — and hospital management.
“I know at the end of the day, we need to make sure whatever the contract for this hospital is, it’s good for the nurses and good for the hospital,” Walsh told the crowd. “Because without the hospital, you don’t have the nurses, and without the nurses, you don’t have the hospital.”
Last year, Walsh helped thwart a strike at Brigham and Women’s Hospital when he took on the role of unofficial mediator, working around the clock to reach an agreement.
His support for Tufts nurses is a savvy political move for the mayor, who is seeking a second term this year. The nurses’ union endorsed Walsh in his first mayoral campaign in 2013. His chief opponent, City Councilor Tito Jackson, was on the picket line earlier in the week.
Watch: Walsh addresses Tufts nurses
Lynch, a former iron workers union president, told the crowd that his family has long received health care at Tufts and that he has been speaking with both sides during negotiations. He said it’s unclear how much longer it might take to reach a resolution.
“I think the nurses have been extremely fair and reasonable and thoughtful in negotiations,” Lynch said in an interview outside the hospital. “They’ve made some serious concessions here, and I really think they should be treated fairly.”
Tufts officials said in a statement Saturday that they are hopeful that they can reach agreement with the nurses so they can be once again “solely focused on patients and their families.”
But, the statement said, “There are limits to what we can offer and what we can afford because of what we are paid. Our situation is further challenged by the uncertainty in Washington over health care policy.”
Union members and hospital management said earlier in the week that they plan to be back at the negotiating table sometime after Monday, but no date had been set.
Saturday’s picketers chanted messages such as, “Shame on Tufts,” and “We demand respect,” as claims continued to swirl that patient care is suffering under the 325 replacement nurses brought in from across the country by a national staffing agency.
At least four allegations are under investigation by the state Department of Public Health, but none have yet been substantiated, and a Tufts spokeswoman said Saturday that patients are receiving the same level of care they would at any other time.
“We are staffed today just like we were staffed Saturday a week ago,” said Brook Hynes, the spokeswoman. Hynes said that one replacement nurse “who did not meet our standards” had been fired since beginning work at the hospital Wednesday.
Ann Scales, a DPH spokeswoman, said the department is acting quickly to investigate and resolve any reports it receives.
“Both public health and mental health inspectors are at the hospital and they report no immediate concerns about the quality of care, as they have observed it,” Scales said in an e-mail. “And the hospital staff remains responsive to our questions.”
State Representative Denise C. Garlick, a Needham Democrat who worked as a critical care nurse until six weeks after she was elected to the Legislature in 2010, said in a telephone interview Saturday that she was “disgusted” by the behavior of the hospital’s chief executive, Dr. Michael Wagner.
Garlick came to the hospital Saturday morning with a letter for Wagner from 73 state legislators, who urged him to return to the negotiating table and resolve the contract dispute, which hinges on pay, staffing levels, and pension plans.
Hospital staff invited her inside with other elected officials and told them that Wagner would meet with them and accept the letter, Garlick said. But after waiting in a boardroom for 20 to 25 minutes, a staffer told them the meeting was off, she said.
“Finally they said, ‘It looks like he’s just too busy, and he’s not coming.’ … What was his fear about meeting with elected officials and receiving a letter?” Garlick asked.
Hynes said, however, that Garlick and the other officials did meet with high-ranking hospital officials.
“They met with our chief nursing officer, our chief strategist, our director of government relations, and our chief financial officer. We discussed our position with them, the state of the Medical Center, and answered their questions,” Hynes said.
Among those walking the picket line was Ellen LeBlanc, a nurse who has worked at Tufts for 20 years. She said nurses want to be back on the job.
“Who wants to be out here? This is outrageous,” she said.
Nurse Linda Sahovey, 60, of Marblehead, expressed gratitude for the elected officials’ support as the lockout drags on.
“We needed that today,” said Sahovey, who said she has been a nurse for 35 years and a Tufts employee for 22. “Because we’re so sad. This is not what we wanted.”