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A small victory is a victory still
The good guys won at St. Vincent Hospital
I shot out of a dead sleep at about 5 a.m. this morning. It’s a lot earlier than I’m used to waking up and it wasn’t necessarily pleasant. Some anxiety from some deep dream—the specifics of which fell as I came to consciousness like sand between fingers—brought me into the world early today.
Naturally that meant the ritual of laying in bed and staring at the phone and all the naked terrors within in it came early as well. Lots of horrors these days! You get a horror, and YOU get a horror.
The first thing I read today—after catching up on the breathlessness of my Twitter feed and the comparative nihilism of Instagram—was a fantastic bit of war reporting from Jack Crosbie in Rolling Stone. It’s a story he posted Saturday called “Trapped in Kharkiv’s Bloody Bubble” and it’s about sleeping in the basement of your hotel and staring at the same blood-strewn corpse of a soldier outside the hotel window for days on end and knowing which rocket sounds mean you don’t have to worry too too much and which ones mean you should put on the body armor.
We spend the night in the garage sleeping on disintegrating blocks of padded insulation that is thankfully not fiberglass. At around two a.m. I give up and go sleep on a couch cushion on the floor in the lobby, behind a row of couches and well away from all of the windows. No one has turned the elevator music off so I toss and turn to smooth jazz until sometime past five a.m. when I fall asleep. I wake up at seven on Sunday to one of the hotel security guys nudging my cushion with his boot. He tells me to go back down to the garage and mimes shooting a gun. When I get down there I check my phone and there are reports of Russian soldiers in the middle of the city. The shelling picks up again.
I checked Crosbie’s Twitter after reading the story to find this little sliver of doom.
And I thought about if I was in one of those cars or if someone in my family was working in that building and I felt a shudder of panic and it was overwhelming. I put my phone down and made a pot of coffee.
Going to “stay in my lane” as it were and spare you any sort of amateur take I could produce on the situation in Ukraine except to say that the good guys are the normal people forced to live in this new war zone and the bad guys are all the world powers conspiring to keep it that way and yes that very much includes the United States.
But anyway… the matter at hand:
Worcester is pretty much exactly half a world away from any analogous city in Ukraine and things are peaceful here at the moment and correct me if I am wrong but we have a good streak going of not being occupied by a foreign power.
Here in our little corner of a fraught world, something good happened. Yesterday, nurses at St. Vincent Hospital rejected a bad-faith attempt to break their union. They voted resoundingly against union decertification, 302-133. The Massachusetts Nurses Association will stay aboard and the contract nurses striked for the better part of a year to win will remain.
The bad guys have been raking in win after win all around the world but here in Worcester the bad guys lost and that’s a very good thing and it’s worth being happy about.
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“The honor and integrity of our union is strong, as the St. Vincent nurses have reaffirmed our right to maintain a powerful voice in our advocacy for our patients and our work life. We now look forward to working with all our colleagues to truly begin the healing process and to build a positive future for St. Vincent Hospital,” said Marlena Pellegrino, a St. Vincent nurse and member of the MNA bargaining committee.
As with the strike itself, the victory over decertification set an important precedent. Amid a wave of union activity across the country, the St. Vincent nurses strike was a shining example of how to fight and how to win. The nurses fought myriad strike-breaking tactics and smears. The decertification vote was just the last in a long line of salvos aimed at destroying the nurses’ right to collective bargaining, fair contract and decent working conditions. Through all of it, they stood strong, they fought back and, eventually, they won.
During the strike, hospital management did their best to cast the striking nurses as bullies and blame them for the hospital’s ills amid a pandemic. There were security cameras installed along the strike line, there was a campaign to reclaim the word “scab” (Support Colleagues Above Bullying lol), there were op-eds and a shameless letter from hospital doctors. The hospital cut services despite the massive profits raked in by its parent company—again an attempt to blame the nurses—and a strike which could have ended in August stretched to December because the hospital’s CEO refused to sign an agreement allowing the striking nurses to return to the jobs they held previously. Even still, the agreement on the contract was contingent on keeping all the “permanent replacement nurses” the hospital hired during the strike.
Into that dynamic—a workplace split between striking nurses and nurses hired because of the strike—a replacement nurse by the name of Cederic Richard Avola went on a crusade against the union. In December, he filed the necessary signatures with the National Labor Relations Board to bring on a decertification vote. Nurses freshly back from the strike line, and freshly victorious, faced an unforeseen battle. If the decertification drive were to succeed, they would lose their union and the contract they fought so hard for. But it wasn’t just them voting. Theirs and the votes of permanent replacements like Avola carried equal weight.
Early coverage in the local press and most of it subsequently painted Avola as a man acting on stated principles and in good faith. He wanted the MNA gone because they were bullies, he said, and they shouldn’t have been striking during a pandemic.
It wasn’t until I wrote about it, frankly—and that’s not a brag, that’s just a fact—that the forces behind Avola came into focus. Avola wasn’t acting on his own, it turned out. He was working with the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, an anti-labor organization staffed and funded by some of the scariest vampires in the deep, dark caverns of the conservative movement. This was the organization that secured the landmark anti-union Janus v. AFSCME decision at the Supreme Court in 2018. It’s staffed by Federalist Society members and funded by munitions manufacturers and of course the Koch brothers.
These are the Yacht Conservatives, not the Y’all Conservatives, and the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation is one of countless weapons they have trained on the working class. Through Avola they aimed it squarely at the St. Vincent nurses.
Much like the Janus decision set a precedent making it harder for unions to collect dues, a victory in the St. Vincent decertification effort would have laid out a roadmap to flank a striking workforce. I doubt it was the intention of whoever wrote decertification into law that scabs would be allowed to vote on the state of the union, but that’s exactly what happened in this case, and if it worked it would surely not be the last time Right To Work would try it. That’s what they do, after all—they parachute into union disputes around the country hoping to win a legal precedent that furthers their crusade against the working class.
I talked with John Logan, a labor relations professor at San Francisco State University specializing in the anti-labor industry, at length about this issue for my story in the Intercept, and he told me they’ve been at this for decades.
“They really seek out workers in labor disputes that will allow them to offer legal advice, to offer other help, that will have the end result of weakening the unions, either politically or financially, or in this case getting them decertified,” he said.
But it wasn’t just Right To Work. Avola’s effort was obviously and cravenly backed by the hospital administration, something they should have had no business doing. For a while, it seemed obvious the administration was involved. I mean, Avola was one of several nurses picked for a puff piece in the Telegram in October, and reporters don’t just walk around a hospital looking for nurses to interview. These things are arranged by the hospital’s public relations team. But it wasn’t so overt.
But any illusion the hospital management wasn’t working hand in glove with Avola and Right To Work was dispensed with a few weeks ago when St. Vincent CEO Carolyn Jackson came right out and said it. She urged the nurses to vote to decertify the union in an email sent to all staff.
“As I have stated on several occasions before, I would love the opportunity to show you what St. Vincent Hospital can be like without the MNA present,” she wrote.
She promised that the hospital wouldn’t cut any pay or benefits, which is a lot like a fox telling a hen not to worry because he’s not hungry.
And, sorry for her, that message failed to resonate. It landed so poorly that even Ray Mariano, the Telegram columnist who may as well be allergic to the right side of history, excoriated her in a column titled “Why should St. Vincent nurses believe Carolyn Jackson's empty promises?”
And let’s not forget this great cartoon by Don Landgren.
It’d be just deserts to see her kicked out of the corner office in the coming months and if it happens, that statement is likely why. She had the ball on the 5-yard line down 7 with a minute left in the fourth and she threw an interception. Blew it big time.
Thinking about what she did after the decertification results came in. Maybe put on some music, sat on the bathroom floor and had a good cry? I tried so hard, and got so far… and she’s mumbling along to Linkin Park between sobs… but in the end it doesn’t even matter.
But for real, shame on her.
As for Avola, this is what he told the Telegram.
“It was difficult fighting the MNA with so much money and who is so entrenched in the culture,” Avola said in an email. “I am proud of what I have done, and I have started a wave of change.”
Avola was working with the dark-money organization that secured the most landmark anti-labor Supreme Court decision in recent memory but he says the MNA was difficult to fight because they have so much money? Please. The MNA is popular because they fight for the nurses’ best interests. Avola is comparatively unpopular because he’s a little piss baby with weird grievances and no material case to make. He was a useful idiot to the Yacht Conservatives, though, gotta give him that.
And with that, I am ending what I very much hope is my last post on this issue. Congratulations to all the St. Vincent nurses and your now safely secured contract!
The nurses strike is maybe the issue I’ve followed most closely and passionately since starting this newsletter. If you’ve enjoyed my coverage please consider a paid subscription. This newsletter is entirely reader funded and wouldn’t exist without people like you paying a small amount of money a month!!
Back to our regularly scheduled Worcester news. Steven Foskett over at the T&G took a survey of how every city councilor feels about rent control and the verdict is as expected. Our progressives in Haxhiaj, King and (I assume, as they weren’t quoted) Nguyen are for it. Our conservatives—Bergman, Colorio, Toomey, Mero-Carlson and Russell—are against it, and our middle of the road people are middle of the road.
So the vote on rent control, should we ever get the chance to take it, would be 6-5 or 5-6 probably. Of course the state would have to lift the ban on local rent control measures first and while there’s legislation to do so, it’s unclear whether it will pass or even come to a full vote.
Something’s gotta give though, tell you that much. I’ve been doing research on housing for an upcoming project and woof the more you learn, the worse it gets!
Friendly reminder that instead of posting them here and clogging up the newsletter feed, I’m going to be posting Worcester’s Good But Hurts episodes separately, over on Patreon. Think about it like this: you’ve got Substack for writing and Patreon for podcasting, the way God intended. You can also get the podcast on Apple, Spotify and other places.
We’ve got a new episode up mostly about the Worcester man who broke into the Franklin Park Zoo to commune with the tigers.
And I interviewed Andrew Quemere on his recent story in Dig Boston about the Telegram’s legal battle against the city for police misconduct records. It’s a really good conversation and we get deep in the weeds on the public accountability tip.
Ok that’s it for today. Buhbye!