Photo: Community members showing support for the St. Vincent nurses.
By Vincent Cross
The nurses’ strike at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, now the longest nurses’ strike in Massachusetts history, closed in on its seventh month this week as nurses continued walking the picket lines.
Negotiations broke down in August when hospital owners, Texas-based Tenet Healthcare, did not guarantee that all nurses would return to the positions they held prior to the strike, which nurses saw as a retaliatory measure. The strike originally began on March 8 when more than 700 nurses walked out during contract negotiations with Tenet after they refused to agree to the lower patient-nurse staff ratios demanded by nurses.
In August, the Massachusetts Nurses Association (the union representing the nurses) and Tenet reached an agreement over increased staffing levels. However, the strike continued when Tenet informed the negotiation team last-minute that 15% of striking nurses would not be able to return to their old positions.
Tenet has acknowledged that the normal practice for striking workers is to return to their pre-strike positions once a labor dispute is settled. However, they have used the length of the strike, for which they bear responsibility by not meeting workers’ demands, as an excuse for what essentially amounts to retaliatory layoffs.
Nurses and supportive community members identified this move as just another attempt to retaliate against them for striking for so long and standing up to Tenet. Despite Tenet’s offers of significant raises and increased benefits, nurses have stood firm throughout the strike on their demand for increased staffing levels on the hospital floor, a demand which Tenet originally said they would not be moved on.
The nurses Tribune spoke to on the picket line consistently brought up that safer staffing ratios were a sticking point during negotiations because they are a matter of life and death.
“You could not pay me enough money to go back to a hospital without a safe staffing ratio,” a nurse told Tribune. “If we are so understaffed we can’t keep track of our patients, mistakes are made, patients are hurt, and it is the bedside nurse who takes the fall for it all.”
Nurses asserted that Tenet underestimated how long and hard they would be willing to fight over the staffing issue and tried every tactic available to them to intimidate the nurses into giving up on their demands. Tenet has delayed and suspended unemployment benefits and hired over 100 permanent scab workers to replace striking nurses.
In a concerted campaign against the strike, Tenet has taken out advertisements in local newspapers, billboards, and television media, to order to promote the hospital and drum up business. They have also increased ‘security measures’ such as a heightened police presence and security cameras to monitor nurses on the picket lines. According to the nurses union, the total financial cost of these measures, along with the hiring of scab workers, has cost Tenet $100 million.
Undeterred by Tenet’s obstinance and intimidation, nurses are emphatic that what has kept them going over the almost seven-month-long strike is the support of the community, solidarity between the nurses, and a sense of pride for being one of the few hospitals in the country to take a stand on the problem of nurse understaffing. One nurse said, “The one consistent thing throughout this whole strike has been the tremendous unity and solidarity between the nurses.”
When asked how long the St. Vincent nurses would be willing to stay out on the picket lines, the nurse replied, “As long as it takes to get a fair and just resolution, because every time they retaliate or spread lies about us, it just makes us want to fight more, and for longer.”
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