A Report from the Picket Line
By Daniel Davis
The resolve of the striking St. Vincent nurses has paid off, as hospital owner Tenet Healthcare has said they will resume negotiations sometime next week. I saw firsthand how the nurses’ spirits could not be broken by slander, sleet or seven weeks on the picket line.
Since the strike began in March, I checked in regularly with the Massachusetts Nurses Association members who patrolled the sidewalk of Summer Street in Worcester. Each time I arrived, after dutifully dropping off a bag of everything bagels at Strike HQ, I was struck by how the strike unfolded; how an initial explosion of resolve meted out into a brutally protracted slog; and how the noise was drowned out by what really matters.
On the evening of March 7, 2021 I arrived from Boston with my Democratic Socialists of America contingent. The rally had already begun in the parking lot across the street, yet dozens, maybe hundreds more nurses were streaming out of St. Vincent Hospital after finishing their last shift, not knowing when they’d return. Watching this torrent of bright blue union jackets reach the rally to commence the strike, reuniting with peers from other shifts and other hospitals around the state in giddy embraces, it was impossible not to feel their excitement. But the speeches were torn between a celebration of how far they’d already come, and the reiteration that the fight was still ahead. The real life of a strike is found in the duration, however monotonous and uncertain. Despite the drudgery, what we heard over and over again is that the nurses were dedicated to patient safety above all.
“This is about bringing safety back to the bedside,” declared Marie, when asked why she was on strike. “We’re here for our patients and our community,” added Yasmin.
“It’s just reached a point where it’s come to a head and we know that this hospital is not using the profits they make to provide the resources that we need to care for our patients,” said Marlena.
This is not these nurses’ first rodeo. When Tenet first acquired St. Vincent in 2000, the strike over the terms of their initial union contract lasted for seven long weeks. These memories are still fresh for those who have participated in both, but for Christine, a nurse on the picket line, that past is especially painful. She spoke about her husband’s recent death, and how active he’d been in the strike back then. Christine found particular solace in working with Sandy, who was directing traffic nearby.
Now, twenty-one years later, this strike has again stretched for seven weeks, with a return to the negotiating table slated for early next week. The strike follows a year and a half of bitter negotiations and more than two months of pre-strike demonstrations.
I caught one such evening in mid-February before the strike proper. There were so few nurses that the state rep who turned out in support could greet each in turn. But despite the size of this party, the anticipation was unmistakable; the vote to strike had just been cast a few days prior.
I returned twice during the week after the kick-off rally. The energy was as abundant as the snack reserves, which had so completely overflowed the Strike HQ office that doughnut boxes were being piled up on street corners. At the shift change, as the replacement strikebreaker nurses were let through by the police, one nurse hoped to popularize a slogan of her own invention: “If you pick a scab, it won’t heal!”
The community was out in full force that warm first weekend. The nurse’s intensity was matched by a number of union allies, family members and DSA chapters. Surprisingly, there were more Trotskyist cells on hand than I would have guessed existed.
Patience, a striking nurse, noted the seeds of camaraderie were planted long before the picket.“I love that we are like a community. We know each other. We’ve attended each other’s weddings. Our birthdays. It’s like a second family.” Added another nurse, “It felt like family as soon as I got here.”
Jessica, an ER nurse pushing a baby in a stroller, shared a story that was significant in effectively exposing the two key takeaways of the picket line. During the early part of the pandemic, an elderly man in her section was suffering from COVID. “He was very ill. He was scared. He needed all my time.” After staying with him for the next eight hours of her shift, she said “I hope you feel better. And he grabbed my hands and started crying. And he said, thank you so much.
“Carolyn Jackson has never done that. She doesn’t know what these patients need.”
St. Vincent CEO Carolyn Jackson is the only person on the hospital’s side to ever be referenced by name. “Carolyn Jackson… is just trying to crush us, and it cannot be done,” Marie resolutely stated.
The strife started before the strike, when Tenet sent a patronizing mailer to addresses across the city. Out of a concern for the “misinformation out there,” the flyer substituted its own by stating that Tenet agreed to increase nurses’ pay and was prepared to resume negotiations whenever MNA was ready. The nurses refute this claim, and the flyer’s focus on salary increases seems to be an effort to misrepresent the point of dispute.
A common view conveyed to me, over the hubbub of police and protesters at the loading bay, pins the company’s decision to force the strike as purely financial: the nurses feel that Tenet simply compared the huge price tag to bus in strikebreakers against the expense of safe staffing levels, and a projected likelihood that the strike will fail. It gave the impression that Tenet said whatever they must to obscure their commitment to the bottom line. Or as Jessica put it, “it feels like they’re negotiating against themselves.”
Bill Lahey, a St. Vincent for more than four decades and MNA negotiator, was in that last failed round of negotiations. “Why do you keep insisting on going over the staffing? We’ve given you the best offer you’re going to get,” he recalls a Tenet attorney demanding. “And that was the end of it. So we said, okay. We’ll call for a strike.”
On March 20, one of the three unions active at St. Vincent settled their contract with Tenet. The contracts for 600 Patient Care Assistants were up for renewal around the same time as the MNA contract, and the PCAs, represented by the United Food and Commercial Service Workers union, shared the same concerns about patient staffing ratios. MNA representatives noted, however, despite again refusing that central demand, the extent of the concessions Tenet did make to UFCW revealed their desperation to deny the nurses any allies and demonstrated an underlying fear of the power of the strike.
By the end of March, as the wind chill dipped, so did the nurse’s spirits. A skeleton crew strode briskly against the cold. As one of just three supporters that day, I had a hard time not feeling uncomfortable, especially against the backdrop of Worcester police.
Standing outside Strike HQ, I saw a nurse emerge, adjusting a disposable plastic rain poncho over her and her sign. Sheepishly, she asked me, “Be honest, I look ridiculous, don’t I?”
The protracted length of the strike, dishonesty from the bosses and loss of a key ally was enough to make someone, or a union local of eight hundred someones, worry. But the patience of these nurses, who had already been in this struggle for years, is a reminder: One big push isn’t going to stop the onslaught. There’s a willingness not just to fight an uphill battle against corporate abuse, but also to keep pushing up that hill, even if there’s no end in sight. The nurses’ tenacity paid off, and now Tenet has said they will resume negotiations.
I learned the key to a successful strike is to hold tightly the reasons that had you agitated enough to walk off the job in the first place. It took me a while to recognize that on some level this is why, whenever I’d ask how the strike is going, the response was sometimes indirectly about the impact of COVID on the nurses. “People were crying going into work and crying coming home,” Lahey told me. It’s not hard to appreciate how, whether it’s week one or week seven, that kind of experience would still come to mind.
As Tenet schemed up strategic covers for their true motives, the nurses’ strategy of ignoring the attacks, sticking together and securing the funds to keep waiting was well adapted to counter it.
The last time I spoke to Lahey, he wasn’t worried. Rather, he was focused. It was a focus that emblematized something I’ve encountered in every picketer I’ve spoken to.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” he said.
Additional reporting by Andrew Bergman and Nevena Pilipovic-Wengler.
Daniel Davis is a member of BDSA’s Labor Working Group.