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Suck it, Tenet!
The St. Vincent nurses strike reaches a long-awaited conclusion
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The strike is over! (Well, almost). But still, the nurses won! Tenet caved! Suck it, Tenet!
Nurses at St. Vincent Medical Center and Tenet Healthcare Corporation, the leech of a company that owns it, reached an agreement this afternoon to end a strike that stretched on nearly a year. It’s a Christmas miracle!
When I heard the news, I called up veteran St. V’s nurse Diane Waters, who I’d spoken to before, to get her thoughts. Waters had been through both of the nurses’ strikes at St. Vincent: The 48-day strike in 2000, and the 285-day strike that hangs now on the precipice of resolution.
“Very relieved. Very, very relieved,” Waters said. “These last two months at least, it’s been so hard to picket. I think everyone feels the same way. I think that both sides were really backed into a corner and didn't know how it was really going to be resolved. I thought really, how could it end? Because it’s gone on so long and it's such a difficult issue to resolve. But it’s done, fingers crossed.”
Per the agreement, all of the nurses who went on strike will return to their jobs. This resolves an unnecessary and frustrating point of contention which, by itself, prolonged the strike for several months. It shouldn’t have been a battle line in the first place. Tenet demonstrated its condescension and disregard for its employees by offering to resolve the strike back in September if only the Massachusetts Nurses Association would agree to let go all of the nurses for whom the company had hired “permanent replacements.” The Massachusetts Nurses Association bargaining team deserves credit for refusing to capitulate until the company agreed to give all the striking nurses their jobs back. Likewise, St. Vincent CEO Carolyn Jackson and her puppet masters at Tenet Healthcare deserve a Game of Thrones style “shame” walk for the way they tried to squeeze MNA nurses out of their jobs. Now that I think of it, Tenet did a bunch of monstrous things over the course of the strike, and I’ll be sure to list them in detail later in this post. But for now, the more pressing details…
While both the MNA and St. Vincent management said in statements that the nurses got most of what they were looking for in the new contract, the details are as of yet pretty sparse. Rank-and-file MNA members get a first look at the proposed contract before the details are made public, according to a union release. Makes sense. The nurses still have to vote to ratify the contract, after all. If the roughly 700 nurses involved vote to reject the contract, it’s back to the negotiating table. No word yet on when that vote will take place. The nurses will have an informational meeting tomorrow on the contract but aren’t expected to vote on ratification, or so I’m told.
A safe patient ratio—no more than four patients per nurse at a given time—was the marquee battle as years of failed contract negotiations led to the decision to strike in March. Nurses complained that high patient ratios put both patients and nurses in a dangerous position. Nurses were run ragged by an overly demanding workload, leading to high turnover. With nurses spread too thin, patients are left in the lurch.
In all my reporting on the strike, there was one interview with a striking nurse that remained a refrain in my mind.
Gift Stewart, the nurse on the right up there, said she worked on the COVID floor, said nurses struggled even to give patients breakfast, especially elderly patients who may need help eating or need someone to sit with them a while.
“You can’t even take the five minutes to just hold their hand and be the nurse you want to be,” said Steward. “This is why we’re here. Just give us better staffing.”
You want to be a good nurse. You want to fulfill your hippocratic oath. You want to give every patient the best care you can. But you’re getting squeezed by the boss, by the guy making dividends off the sick and dying, by the interest of shareholders and its priority over that of the patients. You gotta keep costs down if you want your hospital to look good in a stock portfolio. An adequate amount of nurses might be good for the patients but it’s certainly not good for the bottom line. Sure, you’ve got elderly people in hospital beds in Worcester calling out for a nurse who won’t come, who can’t come, but you’ve also got people on yachts off Boca Raton and maybe they’re thinking about buying a second yacht. Need to weigh the concerns of the yacht people against the sick and dying.
St. Vincent is one of 65 hospitals owned by Tenet Healthcare Corporation. Tenet is ranked 167th on the Fortune 500 list. A publicly traded company, it has made loyal investors quite a bit of money, especially over the course of the pandemic. On April 3, 2020, during the three weeks officials initially told us the pandemic would last, the company’s stock hit a low of $11.89. Now, after a year and a half and 803,000 COVID deaths, the company’s sitting pretty at $74.52 a share.
If you’d had the good sense to invest last April, you’d be up 600 percent! If you invested a yacht’s worth, you’d have six yachts now! In Q3 2021 (this fall, in normal person English), the company made $448 million in profit. That’s in one quarter. Just a couple months. The company also received more than $1 billion in federal COVID-related subsidies.
All the while—through this immensely profitable period in the company’s history—it simply refused to budge on a very simple request from some 700 nurses in a mid-sized city in Massachusetts: a fair workload and fair compensation, and adequate staffing to handle the workload.
Instead, the company tried and tried and tried again to vilify the striking nurses, to turn public opinion, and to break the nurses’ spirit. They did so to the point of making the hospital worse on purpose—all the while with one hand scooping up cash and the other wagging a finger in the nurses’ faces.
Let’s go through some of the hits:
In the early days of the strike, the company launched a public relations campaign praising nurses who crossed the picket line. It was called the “Campaign to Support Colleagues Above Bullying” or S.C.A.B. They made cute t-shirts and raised a couple thousand dollars off them. St. Vincent CEO Carolyn Jackson said in a press release announcing the campaign that line-crossing nurses were subject to online and in-person bullying at the hands of the striking nurses. Which, like, good. That’s how strikes work.
Around the same time, the St. V brass installed ominously large security cameras along the strike line in an attempt to intimidate the nurses. The move prompted MNA spokesman David Schildmeier to say, accurately, “They are just throwing money away that could be spent on patient care, on keeping people safer to prolong this strike so they can continue endangering patients everyday. It's obscene.”
In July, the company announced it was scaling back services, again blaming the nurses. They cut 80 inpatient beds, cut surgery capacity by 29 percent, cut psychiatric capacity by 50 percent and reduced other services. Jackson blamed the cuts in part on costs associated with replacement nurses.
Nevertheless, she persisted. In early August, Jackson announced that the hospital would be hiring 100 “permanent replacement nurses” to fill holes left by those on strike.
Later that month, the hospital announced that 15 percent of the nurses would not have jobs to return to. The permanent replacements were indeed permanent. Jackson balked at the union’s demand for a return-to-work agreement for all the striking nurses, and it was on this disagreement that the strike languished into the fall.
Waters, the nurse I quoted earlier, was one of the striking nurses in danger of losing her position to a permanent replacement. She’s been at the hospital 39 years. She works in same-day surgery, an admittedly “sweet gig” (good/steady hours) she earned by putting her time in. The hospital was threatening to replace her entire unit with permanent scabs, effectively firing veteran nurses who’d earned their places.
“It just seemed very bleak to me at times,” Waters told me this evening. At times she’d considered the prospect of taking one for the team—a “sacrifice for the greater good,” as she put it. In order for the strike to end, she would have to give up her job.
“I'll be very happy to walk back into that building. Then I can leave on my own terms, not being forced out.”
It got to the point that, in late September, a collection of doctors released an open letter begging the nurses to return to work. The statement blamed the nurses, not the company, for the hospital’s inability to meet the demands of a COVID surge.
Negotiations stalled. Federal mediators were called in. Still, the hospital was unwilling to relent. It wasn’t until this week, when Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh came to town, that the hospital agreed to honor the return-to-work agreement, and it’s still unclear on what condition.
In a terse, three-paragraph statement released today, Jackson said that all striking nurses will have jobs to return to, alongside all the replacement nurses (scabs) that the company hired.
“The decision to allow striking nurses to return to their original positions followed careful consideration of the clinical challenges expected this winter throughout Massachusetts, and the resultant need for as many nurses as possible to provide quality care for our community,” the statement read.
And then Jackson extended a vague and hollow olive branch with this quote:
“We will be setting a new tone at Saint Vincent Hospital: We are one team with a common purpose. Not striking nurses versus replacement nurses. Not nurses versus management. One team united behind the principles of professionalism, excellence, accountability, and compassion.”
It’d have to be quite the new tone to make up for the nine months of craven anti-union negging but hey she said it so it must be true! Management won’t ever try to wring profit out of its beleaguered workforce ever again!
The MNA on the other hand rightly pointed out in its statement today that the hospital under Jackson’s leadership spent more than $75 million on the strike, “all to avoid being held accountable for providing safer patient care.”
“With this agreement we can go back into that building with great pride not just in what we got in writing in the agreement, but for what we have built together as nurses who know they did everything they could for their patients and their community,” said Dominique Muldoon, RN, a nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the bargaining unit.
Waters was a bit more blunt about it.
“I’m glad I didn't sell my scrubs,” she said and laughed. “You know, I have quite a collection.”
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Earlier this week, I wrote about the City Council’s vote to move the School Committee to a district-based system for elections. My concern is that there are five Council districts and six School Committee districts and this will be a big mess if the Council doesn’t fix it.
From the article:
Everyone loves the idea of equity and fairness, but how strongly would you hold to those principles if they threatened your self interest? Which would be more important to you? It’s no wonder we haven’t heard much about the council side of things lol I mean it’s exceedingly obvious that the only good way to do this is to have the Council and School Committee maps align but there’s four people (can’t count Wally) on an 11-person City Council that have a vested interest in preserving the current Council map.
It would be a damned shame if we let the self interest of a handful of people put the city in a position of further disengaging an electorate that already can’t be bothered. And the irony of doing that in pursuit of more racial equity, more balanced representation, and more engagement… well it’d just be so Worcester it hurts.
Well the day after I published the article, the Council met and they didn’t do a whole lot to allay my concern—in fact, they made it a lot worse. Instead of talking about how to best align the Council map with the new School Committee map, they argued about how to not talk about it. Councilor Khrystian King (wooooo) motioned to “table” the conversation, meaning it could be easily picked back up at a later date. Councilor Moe Bergman (booooo) motioned to “file” the conversation, meaning throw it out entirely. King’s motion failed 5-6 and Bergman’s passed 6-5. So now, instead of leaving the conversation on the table, the council will have to wait 90 days and file a new item about it if they so choose. If it weren’t for a new, more progressive council swearing in in a couple weeks, I’d say our hopes of fixing this disaster are all but dashed. The new City Council will likely be much more amenable to the conversation of adding a sixth district councilor to conform with the School Committee. In his successful vote to file, Bergman was joined by Donna Colorio, Candy Mero-Carlson, George Russell, Matt Wally and Kate Toomey. Come January 3, Wally is gone, and we’re adding two new progressives who are likely to vote with King. Subtract one and add two, King’s motion passes 7-41. Something to think about!
I still need to write about how the city plans to administer the American Rescue Plan Act money and the new proposal for replacing school resource officers and oh yeah in other labor news the Education Association of Worcester is having trouble of its own!
Much to think about!
‘Til Tuesday ;-)
It would actually be 6-5. It was late and I’m not good at math. Whoops.