The nurses’ strike against Saint Vincent Hospital will enter its 12th week on Monday, as the Worcester hospital starts hiring permanent replacements and the union affirms its resolve to keep up the fight.
A return to bargaining earlier this month ended quickly. Hospital officials walked out of the second session, after receiving what they considered an “unreasonable” offer from the union. The union said the hospital’s last offer lacked safeguards to assure that staffing levels would be safe for patients.
Nurses’ strikes typically last a few days, so this conflict is starting to attract national attention as the longest in decades. In Massachusetts, the last open-ended nurses’ strike continued for 103 days in 2001.
The main issue in the dispute is staffing levels. Nurses say they had too many patients to care for safely at the hospital, which is owned by the Dallas-based Tenet Health chain.
Marlena Pellegrino, a union leader who participated in a 49-day strike against Saint Vincent 21 years ago, said she’d never imagined this strike would last even longer. But she said nurses are supporting one another and holding strong.
“This is something that’s very important to do. We’re standing up for our patients,” Pellegrino said. “We’re going to stay out there standing up for our patients until Tenet comes to their senses and realizes they’re not going to break us.”
Most of the striking nurses have started receiving unemployment benefits and many are taking per diem jobs to get by, said David Schildmeier, spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents nurses at Saint Vincent and at most other hospitals around the state.
Saint Vincent president Carolyn Johnson said union nurses have been crossing the picket line, and that 145 are working, 15 more than a month ago. Schildmeier disputed those figures, calling the returning workers “a trickle” and noting that more than 700 were still on the sidewalk.
“The nurses are resolved to do whatever it takes,” he said. “They have no interest in going back under the conditions that forced them out in the first place.”
The hospital is also well-positioned for a prolonged fight; its parent company, Tenet, is reporting huge profits — $97 million in the first quarter of this year and $400 million last year.
The union estimates that the hospital has spent more than $60 million on security and temporary nurses from a staffing agency, which Schildmeier said was triple what it would cost to meet the nurses’ demands. Jackson said the expenditures were less than that but would not say how much, and said she had not calculated the cost of the union’s proposals.
In bargaining, the union made the last offer, which technically puts the ball in the hospital’s court. But Jackson said the hospital has no intention to resume bargaining unless the union comes back with a “reasonable counterproposal.”
Meanwhile, she said, the focus is on replacing the striking nurses with new workers.
The hospital posted 102 nursing positions, made “the first wave” of offers Friday morning, and will release data on how many were hired next week, Jackson said. The nurses displaced by any new hires will not get their jobs back unless one of the replacements leaves, she said.
Schildmeier expressed skepticism about the hospital’s ability to replace very many of the 700 striking nurses. The hospital couldn’t fill more than 80 vacancies before the strike and a recent survey showed widespread support for the strikers among nurses statewide, he said. “This is just a ploy to scare the nurses into returning,” he said.
Contract talks ran aground over staffing levels. The union asserts that nurses routinely were assigned five patients and sought to lower that to four patients. In the latest proposal, the union offered to allow for situations where some nurses had five patients — provided that each floor had a “resource nurse” who did not have a patient assignment and could be “an extra pair of hands.”
The hospital’s proposal, Schildmeier said, would have eliminated existing staffing requirements and given the hospital carte blanche to lay off support staff.
Jackson countered, “We have put multiple good offers on the table, and the MNA has refused to take any of them to a vote of their membership.”
The hospital offered staffing language identical to that in the nurses’ union contract with the UMass Memorial Medical Center, a hospital the union has praised for maintaining adequate staffing.
But Schildmeier said the union never wanted the UMass language at Saint Vincent because it’s based on a trusting relationship with UMass officials.
At UMass, he said, “Their nurses have four patients, regardless of whatever their language says,” he said. At corporate-owned for-profit Saint Vincent, he said, nurses need “strong enforceable language that holds them accountable.”
Meanwhile, trouble is brewing elsewhere — although Schildmeier said not anywhere near as bad as at Saint Vincent. Unionized nurses have held informational pickets about contract negotiations at the Cambridge Health Alliance, Cape Cod Hospital, and Falmouth Hospital.
The actions are unrelated to what’s happening in Worcester, Schildmeier said, but he did see one common thread.
“Nurses are outraged and alarmed across the state and across the nation because of what they have gone through in the past year,” he said. “What the pandemic has exposed is that there is understaffing in hospitals.”