By Alexandra Bruns-Smith
One year into the coronavirus pandemic, St. Vincent nurses show that their fight for safer staffing levels is part of a critical need to support the health and welfare of our nurses, patients, and communities.
On March 8, 800 nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Mass., began an open-ended strike, demanding safer staffing levels, including reduced nurse-to-patient ratios. Eighty-nine percent of the nurses voted to authorize the strike in February as it became clear the hospital would not act in the best interest of its nurses and patients.
A chilly pre-strike rally the day prior demonstrated strong community support as nurses, Massachusetts Nurse Association (MNA) organizers, representatives from local unions, elected officials, and neighbors, including DSA members from Boston, Worcester and the Pioneer Valley showed up in full force. The cold day did not stop the community from rallying behind the nurses’ calls for owner Tenet Healthcare Corporation to bargain in good faith with the MNA in contract negotiations that have dragged on for over 18 months. Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) member Heidi Lahey, whose husband is a St. Vincent nurse on the MNA bargaining team, said she understands what it’s like not to have enough resources. However, Lahey said, “for nurses, it’s life and death.”
The timing of the strike is hard to ignore. It comes nearly one year into shutdowns due to the ongoing global pandemic that has pushed nurses and medical staff across the country to the brink. A survey by the Boston Globe found that more than 14,000 hospital workers in the largest medical centers and hospital systems in Massachusetts were infected with COVID in 2020. Further, among healthcare workers in the state, nurses were the most likely to test positive for COVID. On a national scale, the Guardian has estimated that total COVID deaths among healthcare workers in the U.S. were nearly 3,000 in 2020, a much higher number than has been reported by the government. As of March 8, Massachusetts has had nearly 600,000 COVID cases and over 16,000 deaths.
Despite these startling numbers, nurses at St. Vincent Hospital have been forced to work with dangerously low staffing levels, resulting in nurses filing more than 500 official reports of unsafe conditions since the beginning of the pandemic. Additionally, contract negotiations have dragged on for over a year, with Tenet issuing what it called its “last, best and final” offer on January 28, which still failed to address the hospital’s longstanding staffing and patient safety crisis. “The hospital is not stepping up to the plate,” said George Pokropowicz, a United Food and Commercial Worker (UFCW) worker at UMass Memorial Medical Center who was at the strike to show solidarity. Consequently, the nurses voted overwhelmingly to authorize an open-ended strike.
The pre-strike rally focused on the connection between conditions at St. Vincent and the Worcester community. Numerous studies have found that a higher nurse-to-patient ratio is linked to lower patient mortality. MNA President Katie Murphy, speaking at the rally, said that nurses “run towards the call for help,” but cannot respond to each patient when they are stretched thin. As one St. Vincent nurse said, “We’re here for a reason. We need safe staffing to make the patients safe.”
By refusing to lower the nurse-to-patient ratio, Tenet puts the lives of patients at risk. Paul Stuart, a St. Vincent employee in the sterile processing plant, said that the strike “is for the community, our parents and grandparents who [the nurses] are taking care of.”
However, Dallas-based Tenet is removed from the Worcester community and its unique hardships. Many rally-goers carried signs with “Shame on Tenet CEO Carolyn Jackson” written in bold red letters. Stuart went on to say “when you get to the point where the hospital says they don’t appreciate what [the nurses] are doing, and are not even willing to go to the negotiating table, it’s just greed.” While Tenet was furloughing workers at St. Vincent in May of last year, its profits were peaking, increasing three-fold from the same period in 2019, to $88 million. The St. Vincent nurses’ struggle represents a larger fight between labor and capital which COVID has exacerbated.
However, MNA has proven to be a formidable opponent of hospital greed, organizing hundreds of nurses at Milford Regional Medical Center in February of this year. A recent wave of hospital unionizations and strikes could be a guideline for nurses to fight back against hospital bosses throughout the state at a time when nurses feel more unsafe and less heard by hospital management than ever before.
The hospital has already mounted a campaign against the strike. Tenet sent out mailers to Worcester residents at the beginning of March saying the hospital offered the nurses a generous package at the bargaining table. The hospital has also publicly praised around 100 nurses who they claim crossed the picket lines on Monday, using them as a propaganda tool while continuing to disregard their welfare. A supermajority of St. Vincent nurses are now on the picket and Tenet has expended around $5.4 million in replacement nurses, indicating that the company is willing to spend big dollars to undermine the nurses’ show of strength.
The bravery of the nurses gives the labor movement and the working class vision and hope for progress; this is a struggle that belongs to the entire community. Nurses, however, are prepared for a long fight. As Mr. Stuart and other speakers at the rally on Sunday said, “We will stay out as long as it takes.”
With additional reporting by Alex Rothfelder.
Ways to support the St. Vincent Nurses Strike:
- The strike picket runs from 6:00 a.m. till midnight everyday until Tenet meets the demands of its nurses! Sign up with this form to coordinate with us heading out to the picket line.
- Please also consider donating to the strike fund through Paypal or Venmo.
- Follow updates on the MNA website, Twitter and Facebook.