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labor Massachusetts Nurse Strikers Aren’t Blinking

The nonprofit research group Good Jobs First found that Tenet had been fined at least $1.8 billion since the St. Vincent nurses’ last strike in 2000.

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This week Tenet asked the nurses to return to the table—just a few days after declaring its offer final and repeating its threat to permanently replace the strikers. “We’ve got 150 days down and we’re ready to go 150 more,” said one picketing nurse., Sam Bishop

Five months into the longest nurse strike in a decade, little progress has been made but workers aren’t backing down. “We’ve got 150 days down and we’re ready to go 150 more,” said one picketing nurse outside St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The nurses launched their open-ended strike in March after months of failed contract talks with Tenet Healthcare, one of the nation’s largest for-profit hospital corporations. About 700 of the 800 nurses in the bargaining unit are out on strike.

This week Tenet asked the nurses to return to the table—just a few days after declaring its offer final and repeating its threat to permanently replace the strikers.

Meanwhile health care workers at three more Tenet-owned hospitals in California, members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, have authorized a strike of their own, which could begin this month.

The Massachusetts Nurses (MNA) is pushing for a lower nurse-to-patient ratio. The union says its demand would cost Tenet a fraction of the $100 million it has spent on out-of-state replacement nurses and round-the-clock police details.

Understaffing was a major factor in the 49-day strike at St. Vincent in 2000, where the union ultimately won one of the first nurse contracts to ban mandatory overtime.

FRUSTRATION OVER PPE

Understaffing was also the focus of a 2018 ballot initiative spearheaded by the MNA, which would have set statewide legal minimum nurse-to-patient ratios (something only California has). Tenet and other companies spent tens of millions of dollars to defeat it.

Since then, MNA says, the situation has only gotten worse. Early in the pandemic Tenet began furloughing support staff even as it took billions in state and federal money intended to help hospitals maintain staff.

“You had nurses being given single-use masks that were supposed to be used once. These nurses weren’t just expected to use them multiple times but for multiple days,” said nurse Marie Ritacco, the union vice president. “Management guarded supplies—when nurses went into the supply closet they saw only one gown. Some nurses started bringing in trash bags from home and wearing those because it’s all they had.”

The union says 100 nurses retired or left to work at other hospitals during the pandemic, thanks to dangerous conditions and the lack of staff. Nurses filed more than 700 safety complaints against the hospital; understaffing was a recurrent theme.

On its anti-strike website, wecangettoyes.com, Tenet chalks up these complaints and the nurse exodus out of St. Vincent to “bullying from the MNA.”

Tenet mailed flyers to homes across the area to advertise its staffing levels as some of the best in the state, while claiming to offer the most generous package nurses have received in a decade. It made similar claims in a full-page ad in the Boston Globe.

PERMANENT REPLACEMENT THREAT

In May Tenet announced that it would permanently replace the striking nurses. The company offered massive sign-on bonuses—but failed to attract anywhere near the several hundred new hires it would need.

In July, after Tenet spent weeks refusing to bargain, nurses traveled to its Dallas headquarters, joining forces with Tenet hospital workers from California and with Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) President Sara Nelson. They delivered a 16-foot petition signed by 700 nurses demanding an end to the strike.

Tenet agreed to come back to the table, but talks soon stalled again. Recently it had declined the union’s offer of mediation, made a “final offer,” and repeated its threat to replace all the strikers—perhaps sensing an opportunity in the looming September deadline when many nurses’ unemployment benefits will run out.

Massachusetts Jobs for Justice organizer Nelly Maedina said the striking nurses are “pushing back against corporate giants exploiting women-dominated unions and essential workers.”

Teamsters have come out to support the nurses; JwJ and other groups have organized marches to bring the community into the fight. Together the community and labor support has raised more than $300,000 for the strike fund.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have visited St. Vincent multiple times to speak for the nurses, and have sent open letters denouncing Tenet’s practices. Congressman Jim McGovern tried to broker last-minute negotiations to prevent the strike. The hospital agreed to minor staffing increases in two out of 12 departments—not enough to satisfy the union.

PANDEMIC HORRORS

California Rep. Katie Porter and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro are calling on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Tenet for illegal acts during the pandemic.

Porter wrote, “Tenet understaffed the emergency room and intensive care unit at Detroit Medical Center’s Sinai Grace hospital so severely that single nurses were charged with treating as many as 20 COVID-19 patients at a time. The emergency room ran out of oxygen and beds and was forced to prop dead bodies upright in chairs; and dozens may have died for lack of basic attention from the overwhelmed staff.

“The company then fired the staffers who organized to ask for reinforcement and additional support… In the final quarter of 2020, Tenet posted a profit of $414 million.”

Leaders of the MNA and the California-based National Union of Healthcare Workers have since echoed the call that Tenet has criminally misused funds which were supposed to go to Covid relief. They point to the $1.1 billion Tenet recently spent as part of a cash deal to buy 45 surgery centers in nine states while receiving a similar amount in Covid relief—a fact that Tenet CEO Ronald Rittenmeyer boasted of while speaking to shareholders about the company’s record revenue throughout the pandemic.

In 2016 Tenet was forced to pay over $500 million to settle charges of a kickback scheme. Over the years it has repeatedly paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to settle allegations of gross misdeeds from Medicare fraud and unnecessary heart surgeries.

The nonprofit research group Good Jobs First found that Tenet had been fined at least $1.8 billion since the St. Vincent nurses’ last strike in 2000.

Ritacco said it’s clear that Tenet “cares more about satisfying their shareholders than helping the community they are supposed to serve.”

Sam Bishop is a journalist based in New England.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #510, September 2021. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.