By Danish Kidwai
Amid prolonged negotiations for their first union contract, the 39 healthcare professionals (HCPs) at Visiting Nurse Associates Care (VNA Care) of Boston just concluded a seven day strike that interrupted home care for hundreds of patients in the greater Boston area.
The HCPs at VNA Care of Boston offer countless services for at-home patient care throughout the greater Boston area. Collectively referred to as HCPs, the physical therapists, occupational therapists, social workers, and speech therapists have endured a growing burden as many aspects of patient care are relocated from the hospital to the patient’s home. VNA Care has neglected to address this shift, resulting in understaffing and challenging work conditions for HCPs that ultimately compromise the quality of care that their patients receive.
In December of 2019, the HCPs voted to unionize with the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), joining the ranks of the registered nurses (RNs) at VNA Care who had previously unionized with MNA. For the last 18 months, negotiations have taken place for the first contract, with a lackluster showing from VNA Care. One year and 13 negotiations in, VNA Care had only offered worse conditions than the employees had prior to unionizing, so they delivered a petition to the CEO, Todd Rose, to request fair and good faith negotiations for the good of the patients and HCPs.
Seeing no signs of progress in the following six months, the HCPs officially voted to authorize a strike on June 22nd. On July 15th, they gathered with local supporters at the apartment of Rita S. Advani, the Board Chair of VNA Care, and announced that they would withhold services and care from July 26th to August 1st.
The HCPs propose a fair contract providing limits to the daily patient assignments for each HCP, healthcare and retirement benefits that match other employees of the VNA Care network, and a wage scale that recognizes the value of the HCPs’ labor and experience. VNA Care has rejected all of these stipulations and instead proposed cutting health insurance with the alternative of higher costs, cutting sick days to less than half, and cutting bereavement days.
VNA Care also refused to include language of grievance and arbitration and “just cause”, two fundamental conditions of many union contracts. Grievance and arbitration language designates a procedure and a third party arbitrator for employee complaints, or grievances, that they believe may violate the contract. “Just cause” is a standard for employee disciplinary action that, as the name suggests, demands a reasonable and fair justification. In the absence of these key elements, a contract could hardly be enforced and employees could be terminated at the whim of the employer.
The HCPs have found support on the picket line from local community members, the Boston Area Brigade of Activist Musicians (BABAM), Boston DSA members, and mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George. Additionally, some of the MNA nurses from St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester, MA joined the picket line at the VNA Care offices on July 26th. As this battle continues with VNA Care of Boston, the 800 MNA nurses of St. Vincent’s Hospital are upholding a strike that they started in March to get their employer, Tenet Healthcare, to address similar issues of understaffing.
These are just two of the numerous battles our healthcare heros are waging across the country for fair and reasonable working conditions. In the past two months, thousands of nurses and hospital staff initiated strikes across several hospitals and clinics in Chicago and Los Angeles, with the same primary goal of addressing understaffing. Just last week in Detroit, Mount Clemens hospital conceded to provide increased staffing, a pay raise, and a ratification bonus for the Mclaren Macomb union nurses, just 4 days before their strike was set to start.
Boston DSA will continue to support the HCPs as they return to negotiations for a fair contract. These strikers and their healthcare comrades across the country surely signal a continued increase in labor consciousness. The ongoing pandemic has placed a massive burden on healthcare workers with their employers offering no substantial relief. The guiding principles of capital have no interest in helping the working class, so each of these nurses, HCPs, and hospital staff must fight for themselves and for their patients, and we will stand by them.
Danish Kidwai is a member of the Boston DSA Labor Working Group.