As the historic St. Vincent Hospital nurses strike against Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare enters its eight month, the nurses are calling on Tenet to end their unseemly attempts to abuse, attack and retaliate against nurses who have given decades of service to the hospital, and helped it become one of the most profitable hospitals in the Tenet system.The nurses, along with a growing number of public officials and organizations throughout Massachusetts and throughout the nation say it is time for Tenet to end the strike by agreeing to restore the nurses to their previous positions and stop the corporation’s unfair labor practices so the hospital can reopen beds and services the community needs to address the surge caused by the Delta variant.
The nurses claim the hospital has engaged in an ongoing campaign of psychological warfare against the nurses designed to break their will, force nurses to cross the picket line, break the nurses union and, as a result, limit their ability to advocate for the safety of their patients. The nurses are clear that the effort has failed miserably, as close to 700 nurses remain on strike outside the hospital, and more than 540 vacant positions posted by Tenet, positions the hospital has been threatening to fill with permanent replacements for more than five months, remain vacant. Since that time, only a few striking nurses have crossed the picket line, and a number of those that did cross ended up leaving because of the horrific conditions they faced.
“There are several hundred vacancies posted, and the numbers of vacancies has increased not decreased, which is a sign that they are having trouble recruiting nurses, and that nurses are leaving due to the conditions inside,” said Marlena Pellegrino, RN, a longtime nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit with the Massachusetts Nurses Association.“We have verified reports of newly hired nurses choosing to leave after experiencing the condition inside the hospital, including one floor where nearly every newly hired nurse left within a few weeks.We have also received reports of those few strikers who crossed over in recent weeks now leaving for other facilities.”
Pellegrino added, “Our nurses want nothing more than to be back at the bedside to provide our patients with the dignity and expert care they expect and deserve from this, their community hospital. Unfortunately, Tenet has refused an agreement that would allow that to happen, choosing instead to spend millions to keep us out, to pursue illegal practices to punish us for our advocacy — all to avoid accountability for providing safe patient care.”
As the strike continues, the nurses continue their effort to hold Tenet accountable for their actions and have filed a total of ten unfair labor practices against the corporation for its actions prior to and throughout the strike including making unlawful threats against striking nurses, retaliation and discrimination towards striking nurses, promises of benefits to non-strikers, and bad faith bargaining tactics, all designed to break the strike and to remove MNA as the nurses’ bargaining agent. This conduct has greatly disturbed the nurses, who are now demanding that any return-to-work agreement must also include resolution of the unfair labor practices and the conduct underlying them.
The announcement of the charges followed æ› scathing news report detailing heart-wrenching stories by patients and staff inside the hospital about deplorable patient care conditions and the lack of safe and compassionate care being provided by the replacement nurses hired by Tenet to work during the strike.The striking nurses report seeing a dramatic increase in med flight helicopters coming to the hospital to transport patients to other facilities, and since the closure of beds and the hiring of novice replacement nurses, they have received reports from inside the hospital of patients, from the elderly to newborns, being transferred to other area hospitals because the staff was incapable of providing needed care.
Support for Nurses Cause Continues to Grow
As Tenet refused to negotiate in good faith to end the standoff, support for the nurses’ cause, and the ire against Tenet for its behavior continues to gather momentum within the region, the state and the nation
In the last two weeks, the nurses have been buoyed by a growing chorus of voices coming from all sectors of the community, including two powerful letters from the unions — UFCW 1445 and Teamsters Local 170 representing most of the caregivers still working inside St. Vincent Hospital who place the blame for poor conditions inside the hospital, and the crisis outside the hospital on Tenet, and fully support the nurses call for a return to the positions they held prior to the strike.
Steve Striffler, a professor of anthropology and director of the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, commenting on Tenet’s refusal to grant nurses a return to their previous positions in a recent news report said, “Its unheard of for two sides to come to an agreement, after a really contentious strike, and for them, the employer, to say, 'No, we aren’t going to guarantee you can come back to the job you’ve been in.'”
Public officials have also weighed in, which included a powerful statement by State Representatives Mary Keefe and David LeBoeuf, where they wrote in part: “Worcester is in the midst of a public health crisis with a ‘negative’ number of hospital beds throughout the region…This lack of services during the height of resurge of the COVID-19 pandemic has put all of us in the community at risk. There are over 700 nurses on the picket line. Bringing them back to their jobs would solve this crisis that our community faces.”
Also last week, Mayor Joe Petty and City Councilor and Chair of Public Health Sarai Rivera held a press conference supporting the St. Vincent nurses’ position and calling out Tenet for their efforts to endanger the community, where the Mayor stated, “Tenet Healthcare is demanding that these nurses end this strike with no guarantee that they will retain their previous positions or a commitment that they can return to work without fear of retaliation. These demands are unprecedented and violate the standard practice in any and all strikes and the high labor standards that we expect from all employers in our city. The demand put upon them by the hospitals corporate owners is not only unjust, it is detrimental to the safe restoration of services for our community. I want Tenet to know that we will not allow Worcester to be a testing ground for the imposition of unprecedented labor practices that harm unions and all workers. And when it comes to our nurses, who have given so much to us for so many years, I want Tenet to know that we in Worcester believe that they are irreplaceable.”
The Massachusetts AFL-CIO, which represents thousands of organized workers and serves as the voice for working families in Massachusetts sent a letter to policy makers calling out Tenet for the abusive treatment of St. Vincent nurses and the need to return them to their original positions to end the nurses strike so they can resume caring for the communities they have served with skill and compassion for decades.
Nurses who work at hospitals owned by Tenet Healthcare in California, Arizona and Texas, sent a letter to Tenet’s CEO Saum Sutaria, as well as a number of legislators and policymakers in Massachusetts, decrying the for-profit company’s actions during the historic strike, stating in part that they “strongly condemn Tenet’s continued disregard for the community and patients’ health during this pandemic by failing to return striking St. Vincent nurses to work and ending the seven-month long strike. As fellow Tenet nurses, we have seen how Tenet leadership put profits over patients at our own hospital and we see they are making the same choice at St. Vincent. Their actions are now putting the community of Worcester at dire risk with the closing of beds and failing to reinstate striking nurses.”
On Oct. 7, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which also represents workers at Tenet-owned facilities, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and elected officials in Massachusetts calling on them to convince Tenet to end the strike and restore the nurses to their previous positions, highlighting the national significance of the issue, stating, "The ability to end a lawful strike without permanent replacement, as Tenet is demanding, is a major issue for our union and the entire labor movement and is one that we cannot allow, particularly in an instance where the very safety of the community is at stake. This is particularly true in Massachusetts, which prides itself as a labor friendly state that supports and values the rights of all union members and working people. The right to strike without fear of replacement is also one of the key components of the Pro Act, vitally important federal legislation supported by all unions.”
The nurses have also won praise from their colleagues working in hospitals across the region, who view them as heroes for their stand against Tenet’s corporate greed and blatant abuse and the support they are providing to the community. While the nurses are being kept out on the street by Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare and Tenet has closed beds and services needed by the community, many of the nurses have found or are seeking work at a number of facilities in the region in the hopes of minimizing the impact of the COVID crisis on their own communities while also sustaining their families until Tenet agrees to an equitable end to the dispute. Many of the strikers are working in a number of hospitals, including at both campuses of nearby UMass Memorial Medical Center, at both UMass Memorial HealthAlliance facilities in Clinton, and Leominster, at UMass Memorial Marlborough Hospital, at Milford Regional Medical Center, Harrington Hospital and Henry Heywood Hospital. Other nurses are working in vaccination sites and some in local nursing homes. The skill, expertise and helping hands of these nurses are much appreciated by their colleagues throughout the region.
“We completely support the St. V’s nurses. Their battle for safe staffing in order to provide safe care to their patients is a fight that belongs to all of us,” said Diane Lane-Cormier, RN and co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit at UMass Memorial HealthAlliance-Leominster Hospital. "We have had St, Vincent nurses coming in droves to help us out with our nursing shortage at HealthAlliance. They have been nothing but wonderful, caring nurses and we are pleased and grateful to be working side by side with them.”
Seven weeks ago the nurses had agreed to staffing improvements negotiated throughout the strike and were ready to return to work to provide care, particularly during the current surge caused by the Delta variant, yet a final agreement was scuttled by Tenet when they demanded the nurses accept an unprecedented and punitive back to work provision that is not only unfair to nurses, but its replacement of highly skilled nurses with lesser qualified staff, would undermine all the patient safety gains the parties had negotiated. The hospital’s proposal also called for the nurses to retract all the unfair labor practice charges, opening the door for Tenet to continue its efforts to retaliate against the striking nurses. The nurses are clear that any negotiated Return to Work Agreement must also include a negotiated resolution of all the unfair labor practice charges the nurses have filed.
Without an agreement, the strike will continue as the nurses continue to work with all relevant parties to find a way to move the process to a just resolution.
For more background on the strike and the issues involved, click here to learn more.