By Cory Bisbee
WORCESTER — Early Friday night, the Massachusetts Nurses Association announced a tentative agreement had been reached with Tenet Healthcare Corporation to end the nine-month nurses strike at St. Vincent Hospital. Pending ratification by the union’s membership at the hospital, the agreement provides safe staffing improvements and guarantees all nurses the right to return to their original position, hours, and shift.
The tentative agreement follows two years of negotiations with Tenet and specifically comes after two weeks of discussions with federal mediators and an all-day session on Friday mediated by U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh.
The union believes that although the nurses did not win everything they wanted, they secured the staffing improvements needed to reenter the hospital and ensure safe care for their patients amid an expected surge in new COVID cases from the Omicron variant. The nurses had been prepared to accept Tenet’s offer of staffing improvements in August, but they steadfastly refused the hospital corporation’s punitive demand that around 100 veteran nurses lose their original roles and shifts to scabs. Tenet had begun hiring these permanent replacements in May, and their refusal to agree to the standard “back to work” provision successfully reached at Friday’s session was likewise another element of their attempt to bust the union.
“This agreement, and the improvements it includes was hard fought, and represents a true victory, not only for the nurses, but more importantly, for our patients and our community, who will have access to better nursing care, which was why our members walked that strike line for the last nine months through four seasons” said Marlena Pellegrino, RN, and co-chair of the St. Vincent Hospital nurses’ local bargaining unit.
Dominique Muldoon, RN, the bargaining unit’s other co-chair, added that “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.”
In what has been the longest nurses strike in the United States in 15 years, the nurses have received support from across the country and around the world. More locally, Worcester DSA has joined the nurses outside the hospital since the informational picket before the strike began, working especially closely with Boston DSA’s Labor Working Group and members of River Valley DSA in Western Massachusetts to back the nurses by organizing events on the picket line, raising over $11,000 from DSA members for the strike fund, and organizing independently of the union to interfere with Tenet’s attempts to permanently replace the nurses. The strike was also supported and boosted by National DSA and its Democratic Socialist Labor Commission as well as chapters around the nation, including Orange County DSA in California and DSA North Texas outside Tenet’s headquarters in Dallas.
“Worcester DSA has been proud to stand with the nurses of St. Vincent Hospital in this historic struggle for safer conditions for workers and patients alike,” said Tom Merolli, a member of the Steering Committee of the Worcester Democratic Socialists of America. “What this strike has shown is that when the working class digs in and stands up against corporate greed, our collective power wins out. Pending the ratification of the agreement, we look forward to celebrating this impressive victory with the nurses and continuing to support working people throughout Central Mass.”
Thanking “the dozens of unions, community and faith-based organizations that stood with us and supported us in so many ways,” Marie Ritacco, RN, a member of the nurses negotiating committee and vice president of the MNA, said “We have been so moved and uplifted by all the support we received throughout this ordeal… Our strike struck a chord, and for that and because of that we will walk into that building with our heads held high.”
The union is withholding specific details of the agreement until they can be shared with their rank-and-file members. The nurses hope to hold a ratification vote as soon as possible.
Since walking out together on March 8, the nurses have spent 285 days on the picket line. Pending ratification of this agreement, they will all have the right to walk back in together too.
Cory Bisbee is an editor at Working Mass and a member of Worcester DSA.