By Vincent Cross
On Monday, January 4, nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester overwhelmingly voted to approve a new contract and back-to-work agreement. The vote formally ended a walkout which had resulted in the longest nurses’ strike in Massachusetts history and the longest nurses’ strike in the United States in over fifteen years. The tenacious fight, which won most of the workers’ demands, reflected the strong will of the nurses who refused to accept multiple weak offers from the owner of the hospital, Texas-based Tenet Healthcare.
Among the new provisions the contract contains include a 2% pay raise for all nurses, language that protects nurses from “flexible” last minute scheduling, as well as a nurse to patient ratio of 1-to-4 in most hospital departments, down from a previous average ratio of around 1-to-5.
While most nurses Tribune spoke to had positive things to say about the new contract, one nurse did mention the compromises that had been made by union leadership to reach an agreement with Tenet: “We didn’t get everything we wanted. For example, I’m a nurse in the mental health department and actually because of cut-backs when I go back to work our staffing ratio will be worse than it was pre-strike.” The nurses at St. Vincent’s are organized with the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA).
The strike had many dramatic twists and turns throughout the ten months of struggle, and one veteran nurse told Tribune: “It’s definitely a little surreal now, after so many days and weeks of striking and walking the picket line to finally be going back to work with our heads held high. It’s also surreal because we’re back at work with a new contract that contains agreements that Tenet said time and time again, they would never ever agree to.”
The first workers’ actions began more than a year ago on December 1, 2020. On that day, nurses at St. Vincent’s began forming informational pickets outside the hospital where they distributed flyers and held signs outlining their demands in stagnated contract negotiations with Tenet. Following what Tenet called at the time their “last, best and final” contract offer, nurses voted by a huge majority to authorize a strike on February 17, 2021 and began their eight hundred worker-strong strike on March 8, 2021.
A local community labor activist who had conducted solidarity events with the nurses criticized aspects of the union leadership’s strategy saying, “this dragged on for way longer than it should have because the MNA leadership didn’t know how to make a strong coalition of regular Worcester citizens and supporters throughout the city.”
When asked what the biggest lessons they learned from the strike were, nurses consistently emphasized the importance of solidarity between nurses, and having a strong will to fight. According to the veteran nurse, “Tenet threw everything they had at us. But we learned to always keep high morale on the picket line and push back harder each time they lied or retaliated against us.”
The St. Vincent’s strike was one of the earliest in a national wave of healthcare worker strikes over the last year fueled by grievances like poor benefits, shift scheduling, low pay and, most importantly, nurse-to-patient ratios on the hospital floor. Originally meant to only last a few days, the strike ballooned into a months-long fight that attracted significant local and national attention.
St. Vincent’s nurses emphasized throughout the strike that they wanted their struggle to serve as an example for nurses and other workers around the country that they can win their demands if they are willing to fight for them.
As one worker told Tribune after the agreement was announced in December, “What I want other workers to take out of our strike is that you can win as long as you accept there will be sacrifices and hardship on the way to getting what you know is right.”
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