Sadly, St. Vincent Nurses Strike Reaches Six-Months on Sept. 8th
To Date, Tenet has invested more than $100 million to prolong the strike and avoid needed improvements in staffing to ensure safer patient care, while engaging in a number of illegal labor practices to intimidate and retaliate against nurses for advocating for safer conditions
WORCESTER, MA – On Wednesday, Sept. 8, the St. Vincent nurses strike will reach another sad milestone in their struggle against Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare, which began a full six months earlier on March 8 in a last-ditch effort by the nurses to finally convince Tenet Healthcare, one of the most profitable corporations in America, to finally put their concern for patients ahead of their ravenous desire for profits.
As the strike, now the longest nurses’ strike in state history, reaches its seventh month, it is important for the public to remember how the nurses arrived at this point.
“The fact that we are still outside this hospital, the hospital we love and have served, some of us for 10, 20 even 40 years is a travesty and serves as an indictment of Tenet Healthcare and their unyielding desire for profit and power at the expense of the suffering of our patients and our community,” said Marlena Pellegrino, RN, a longtime nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit of the Massachusetts Nurses Association. “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.”
How We Got Here
The strike followed more than 18 months of negotiations and advocacy by the nurses to convince their CEO Carolyn Jackson that conditions for patients were patently unsafe and needed to be improved to protect their patients and stem the mass exodus of nurses, after more than 100 nurses left the facility largely due to the deplorable working conditions. The strike followed a year of great sacrifice and courageous service by the nurses during the worst public health crisis in the nation’s history, as they worked tirelessly to care for patients during the pandemic with inadequate staffing conditions and the required personal protective equipment (some nurses resorted to wearing trash bags after Tenet failed to provide appropriate protective gowns), resulting in hundreds of the nurses becoming infected with the virus themselves.
Repeated appeals to improve conditions were ignored by Jackson and her leadership team, who responded to the crisis by furloughing staff, implementing daily staffing cuts, while the corporation bragged in the press of their plan to utilize billions in taxpayer pandemic funding to “maximize our cash position.” Over the course of the last two years, the nurses went to great lengths to convince Tenet to address the growing patient safety crisis, including:
- The nurses filed more than 1,000 official real time reports of unsafe conditions that threatened the lives of their patients, with Tenet taking little or no action to address nurses’ concerns.
- The nurses signed and delivered a petition to Jackson in March of 2020 demanding safer patient care conditions.
- The following month, more than 200 nurses attended a meeting with the hospital’s negotiating team providing harrowing testimony of unsafe conditions for patients on nearly every unit.
- In January of 2021 nurses began daily picketing outside the hospital to draw public attention to their cause, and finally.
- On February 10, 2021, the nurses cast an 89 percent vote in favor the strike. The same day, Tenet announced profits for the pandemic year of more than $400 million, profits made on the backs of their nurses and the suffering of their patients.
“What is at stake in this situation is the ability of nurses to advocate for and to care for patients at the most vulnerable time in their lives,” said Marie Ritacco, RN, a member of the nurses negotiating committee and vice president of the MNA. “CEOs come and go, but at the end of the day, nurses are the ones who answer the call light and make the split-second decisions that could save your life. Our union provides us with a protected voice which allows us to fight for you, particularly when a for-profit corporation is willing to sacrifice your safety, as Tenet has done, to boost their stock price for their shareholders.”
“We were the nurses in the room with patients gasping their last breaths, holding up an iPad or cell phone to say their final goodbyes to loved ones last year, not anyone wearing a suit from Tenet in Worcester or Dallas,” Ritacco concluded. ““We are appalled that they have chosen to deprive patients in this community the care they need, and they are now threatening us with the loss of our ability to care for you purely out of spite. It is beyond despicable.”
More than 700 nurses joined the strike on March 8, and six months later, nearly 700 nurses are honoring the strike. While the nurses continue to walk the line, their cause has been followed and supported throughout the region, the state, the nation, and yes, the world, as nurses and labor/health care advocates from nearly every continent have lent moral and material support to the nurses’ cause, seeing their struggle as a fight for humane health care delivery and workplace justice in the face of unmitigated corporate greed. From its inception, the nurses have won the support of nearly every member of state’s congressional and legislative delegations, from Attorney General Maura Healey, the Mayor of Worcester and the entire Worcester City Council. These officials have sent multiple letters, passed resolutions and made multiple calls to Tenet urging them to provide what the nurses are asking for. The nurses have also won vast community support, with multiple faith leaders and community activists holding rallies, marches and no less than four prayer vigils with the nurses outside the hospital. More than 10,000 “I support the St. Vincent Nurses” lawn signs have been distributed and are showing up outside homes and businesses from Cape Cod to Pittsfield, and several thousand community postcards have been signed and mailed to Tenet’s CEO in Worcester and in Dallas from community members.
“As difficult as this has been for all of us, we take enormous comfort from the support we have received and continue to receive from all sectors of our local community and from around the world,” said Dominique Muldoon, RN, another longtime nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit. “No matter what lies and misinformation our CEO puts out, the public understands the core message of our strike, as shown on one of our signs, which is ‘if nurses are out here, there is something wrong in there.’ The public understands the key role we play in their care, particularly after what we all went through last year, and they know we doing this not for personal gain, but to keep them safe.”
As the strike continues, the nurses continue their effort to hold Tenety accountable for their actions and have filed a total of nine charges of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board against the corporations for their 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 follows a 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.
Tenet’s propensity for questionable and unlawful behavior is well documented, as the corporation has been subject to fines and other judgements from courts and governmental agencies totaling more than $1.8 billion over the last 20 years alone. A listing of those decisions can be found here. This includes the award in February of $10.6 million to two cardiologists at Tenet-owned Detroit Medical Center after a federal judge upheld an arbitrators’ decision that the hospital and Tenet acted with malice in firing them as retaliation for reporting violations at the facility. Four nurses at a Tenet facility in June of 2020 have also filed $25 million lawsuit against Tenet for alleged wrongful discharge, retaliation against whistleblowers, and intentional and/or reckless infliction of emotional distress, after the nurses reported preventable patient deaths in their emergency department due to understaffing during the height of the COVID crisis. And in February of 2020, Tenet and one of its California hospitals agreed to pay $1.41 million to settle false claims allegations brought by the federal government for knowingly charging Medicare for implanting unnecessary cardiac monitors into patients.
Agreement Scuttled Last Month Over Back to Work Provision and Tenet Unfair Labor Practices
Two 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.
“We went on strike to achieve safer patient care and can’t go back as long as the hospital’s dangerous return to work agreement denies our most fragile patients the experienced, expert care they deserve,” said Muldoon. “Our members are clear. They are ready to end the strike to provide care once again, but not unless all nurses are returned to their jobs and can do so without fear of abuse because a for-profit corporation decided to retaliate against nurses who have been advocating for safer conditions inside our hospital.”
“This was a callous demand at the 11th hour by our CEO in blatant retaliation against the nurses with only one goal, to punish the nurses for our strike, to break our union and thereby silence our voice as advocates for our patients and our community,” said Pellegrino. “This is yet another example of what our nurses have faced for more than two years, why our nurses cast a vote of no confidence against our CEO during the height of the pandemic in May 2020, and why we went on strike and stayed out on strike all this time.”
Without an agreement, the strike will continue as the nurses continue to work with the federal mediators and the National Labor Relations to find a way to move the process forward.
For more background on the strike and the issues involved, click here to learn more.
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Founded in 1903, the Massachusetts Nurses Association is the largest union of registered nurses in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Its 23,000 members advance the nursing profession by fostering high standards of nursing practice, promoting the economic and general welfare of nurses in the workplace, projecting a positive and realistic view of nursing, and by lobbying the Legislature and regulatory agencies on health care issues affecting nurses and the public.