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Health

Healthcare workers fear technology could replace jobs

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Daniel Robison
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WNED
Larger than life metaphor: After Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York locked out nearly 400 employees, workers responded by inflating a rat in front of the company's headquarters in downtown Buffalo.

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wned/local-wned-976634.mp3

Three months ago, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York locked out nearly 400 employees after contract negotiations broke down. Since then, the sides have endured a contentious standoff. But there could be light at the end of the tunnel.

Milling about, waiting, hoping

To pass the time and keep spirits high during the deadlock, Blue Cross workers sing songs of solidarity while wearing matching shirts and placards calling for a new contract.

Peggy Searcy is just one of the 390 workers who is now on unemployment.

“I’ve been here 20 years. So I’m hoping I get back inside. It’s kind of bleak at this point,” Searcy says.

While the group remains united, Searcy says the experience has worn on them.

“People need food, people need clothing, people need security and right now, some of them seem hopeless,” she says.

But this could be changing, says Patt Gibbs, who is with the Office and Professional Employees Local 212,“I was optimistic when we started this week that we could reach an agreement.”

According to Gibbs, meetings between Blue Cross management and union reps are going on nearly every day.

But one worry for workers is Blue Cross’ desire to, “invest in advanced technology.” Gibbs believes that means staff could be outsourced or have their positions eliminated by streamlining.

So she prefers the picket line.

“This isn’t a situation where the union chose to go on strike. The employer chose to lock them out, which is a tactic used by employers to try and starve out workers so that they’ll accept [BCBS]’s last and final offer,” Gibbs says.

Blue Cross: No comment

Blue Cross Blue Shield is not commenting on negotiations. But Corporate Relations Director Julie Snyder released a statement Thursday saying the health insurance provider has met with union reps 34 times in an effort to hash out a deal.

But it appears the two sides are still far apart. For instance, a large inflatable rat erected by the union now stands in front of Blue Cross headquarters in downtown Buffalo.

“Labor unions use the rat,” Local 212's Gibbs says. “You know that old saying, ‘You dirty rotten scoundrel, you dirty rotten rat?’ Well, that’s usually what [unions] set up outside of employers that are considered dirty rotten rats.”

But when asked if the rat would bring the sides closer together, she replied:

“Look, you have to use all kinds of tactics to get the plight of the worker noticed.”