From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Striking Massachusetts Nurses Outwait Corporate Giant Tenet
Date January 26, 2022 1:05 AM
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[In a year of health care workers organizing amid Covid surges and
staffing shortages, St. Vincent nurses stood out for their willingness
to strike indefinitely and for the discipline the strikers showed. ]
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STRIKING MASSACHUSETTS NURSES OUTWAIT CORPORATE GIANT TENET  
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Sarah Hughes
January 24, 2022
Labor Notes
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_ In a year of health care workers organizing amid Covid surges and
staffing shortages, St. Vincent nurses stood out for their willingness
to strike indefinitely and for the discipline the strikers showed. _

Nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, ended the
longest nurses' strike in the state's history with an agreement that
improves staffing and guarantees strikers their jobs back. ,
Massachusetts Nurses Association

 

Last year’s longest-running strike came to an end in early January
when nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts,
overwhelmingly voted to ratify their new contract and return to work.

Seven hundred nurses had walked out over dangerous staffing conditions
last March—ten months ago. (_See previous _Labor Notes_ coverage
from last April
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and August
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In a year of health care workers organizing amid Covid surges and
staffing shortages, St. Vincent nurses stood out for their willingness
to strike indefinitely and for the discipline the strikers showed.

Open-ended strikes are still a rarity in health care, and Tenet was a
formidable opponent: a massive for-profit health care corporation that
owns 60 hospitals across the country and is valued at $8 billion.

The strikers won improved requirements on staffing, a critical issue
for health care workers everywhere, and stood up to Tenet’s creative
attempts to break the union.

“[St. Vincent] spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this
strike,” said Marie Ritacco, a longtime nurse at “St. V’s” and
the vice president of the Massachusetts Nurses (MNA). “It would have
taken a small portion of that to rectify the conditions in the
building and make sure we could give patients the care they
deserve.”

STAFFING WINS

After years of public outcry about poor staffing at the hospital, the
new contract includes a four- or five-patient cap for nurses on
cardiac post-surgical units and other floors where patients are
preparing for or recovering from surgery or require cardiac
monitoring.

The behavioral health unit will also see a cap of five patients per
nurse, down from six.

MNA also won the use of a resource nurse—a floating nurse in
high-acuity units who will not be assigned patients, but will be
available to support other RNs and to help with arriving and departing
patients.

The nurses reined in the administration’s practice of “flex
time.” Previously, staff could be flexed off—that is, sent home
mid-shift when there were not enough patients. But then an uptick in
patient arrivals later in the shift could mean dangerously high
numbers of patients per nurse. New contract language will limit this
practice by allowing each nurse two refusals to be flexed off (up from
one) in every four-week cycle.

The strike also yielded much better health insurance premium coverage
for part-time nurses, and modest raises, lump-sum bonuses, and step
advancements across the board.

Health care workers across the country are facing a worrisome surge in
workplace violence. The strikers won workplace safety demands,
including more security staff and metal detectors in the emergency
department. Nurses have been concerned that growing numbers of
patients and visitors are carrying concealed weapons. The new contract
also provides “assault pay” for nurses who take workers’
compensation after a workplace attack, to restore any sick or vacation
time used for the injury.

‘WE WON’T BUDGE’

This was the longest nurse strike in state history. One advantage for
the union was that the strikers were able to pick up shifts at
facilities across the area—easy to do given the shortage of health
care workers during the pandemic. The union was still able to maintain
a picket line throughout the strike.

Nearly all the components of the tentative agreement, including the
improved staffing, were settled over a few days in mid-August with a
federal mediator. However, in an effort to cow the union, the hospital
had earlier hired permanent replacements—and Tenet refused to
guarantee striking nurses their positions, shifts, or hours back. So
the strike continued.

MNA argued in a press release at the time that accepting a deal
without these guarantees would be “unprecedented and punitive.”
For Ritacco, St. Vincent’s aim was “to pressure and demean us.
Embarrass us.”

“We won’t budge,” she said in response to Tenet’s hard line,
“unless all strikers who want to go back are able to get their
positions back.”

Because St. Vincent was already short on staff, the more than 100
nurses hired as permanent replacements all have the option of
remaining on staff, though returning strikers will have seniority to
return to their jobs and shifts.

ACCUMULATION OF PRESSURE

When St. Vincent’s nurses went on strike in 2001 for 49 days, the
tentative agreement was mediated by Senator Ted Kennedy. He brought
both sides to negotiate at his Washington, D.C., office, and they
reached a favorable deal for the nurses.

Ritacco and endoscopy nurse Bill Lahey, a member of the bargaining
team, say they don’t know exactly what the tipping point was for St.
Vincent this time, but they credit an accumulation of pressure
heightened by the pandemic.

The nurses received consistent backing from community, faith, and
labor supporters, including Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) President Sara
Nelson and the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter. Members
of a Catholic Worker group in Worcester conducted an exorcism to rid
St. Vincent, which was founded as a Catholic community hospital, of
the “demon of corporate greed” 100 days into the strike. The
Teachers (AFT) backed MNA in asking teacher retirement funds with
significant Tenet stock to pressure the company.

Elected officials including Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren
and Ed Markey and Representatives Lori Trahan and Jim McGovern
attended rallies and pledged their support. The Massachusetts
congresspeople called on Tenet’s executives to account for the $850
million in federal stimulus money the company had received even as it
cut spending by $377 million in the spring of 2020. A delegation of
MNA nurses delivered the letter and a 16-foot-long petition signed by
700 nurses at Tenet’s headquarters in Dallas in July.

Hospital patients and former workers told the press how the thinly
staffed replacement crews during the strike were providing substandard
care. Harrowing stories came out: patients left in soiled beds, left
without pain meds after surgery, and receiving no medical attention
even in emergencies.

The strike meant Central Massachusetts was short 100 hospital beds
with the omicron surge on the horizon.

By mid-December, U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh had signaled that
he was interested in helping to settle the strike quickly. The former
head of the Boston building trades and Boston mayor, Walsh had been an
MNA ally behind the scenes. However, he had not intervened publicly in
many disputes during his tenure in Washington so far.

On December 17, he brought both parties to an Electrical Workers
(IBEW) hall in Boston and declared that a deal had to be made by 5
p.m. because his wife was expecting him to pick up calzones for
dinner. A tentative agreement was reached that day.

But Ritacco has no doubt what won the strike: “The majority of it is
the 700 nurses who didn’t cross a picket line,” she said.
“Without that, there is no other action that will make a strike
successful.”

Maintaining the 10-month strike took a herculean effort by strikers
and the MNA. “It’s constant education, reassurance, support,
camaraderie, one-on-ones—it takes a lot of work,” said Ritacco.

“How do you prepare when the other side has billions of dollars that
they can spend to keep you outside the building? It was knowing our
nurses and having the infrastructure through the MNA to leave no stone
unturned. If you think someone could be helpful—a local pastor, a
politician, Marty Walsh, another union, you have a conversation.

“[But] you have to have the solidarity to keep people out of the
building. Without that you don’t have anything.”

ONE LAST CHALLENGE

Shortly after the strike began, lawyers from the anti-union National
Right to Work Foundation reached out to the replacement nurses hired
by the hospital, and to nurses who did not join the strike, offering
counsel on their right “not to strike.”

A replacement nurse filed a decertification petition with the National
Labor Relations Board to remove MNA as the collective bargaining agent
at St. Vincent, having gathered the necessary signatures from 30
percent of the bargaining unit. Ballots will be mailed February 4.

Ritacco and Lahey shrug it off. “This happened last time too,”
said Lahey, referring to the 2001 strike. Strikers will be eligible to
vote; so will the nurses who crossed the picket line.

“What I saw on the line [this time] was a new kind of bonding,
across shift and unit," Lahey said. "My hope is, moving forward,
people understand the power of the union collectively, and the
strength of these friendships.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #515
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Sarah Hughes [[link removed]] is a staff
writer and organizer at Labor [email protected]

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