After an intervention by US Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh, striking nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester reached a tentative agreement Friday with parent Tenet Healthcare, more than nine months after they began walking the picket lines, officials said.
If approved by the union membership, the deal between the Dallas-based for-profit company and the Massachusetts Nurses Associates would bring an end to one of the longest nursing strikes in state history.
The deal would return the 700 striking nurses to their old jobs, while keeping the permanent replacement nurses hired during the strike in their current positions, the hospital said in a statement Friday evening.
The agreement “will provide enhancements for patients and our team, and we are glad to finally end the strike and put our sole focus back on patient care,” St. Vincent Chief Executive Carolyn Jackson said.
“We will be setting a new tone at Saint Vincent Hospital: We are one team with a common purpose,” Jackson continued in the statement. “Not striking nurses versus replacement nurses. Not nurses versus management. One team united behind the principles of professionalism, excellence, accountability, and compassion.”
A date has not yet been set for the full membership to vote on the agreement, the union said. Details were not released. but the union did secure a key protection for the striking nurses, a union official said.
“Of course, through any contract, you don’t get every single thing you want,” Marlena Pellegrino, a longtime St. Vincent’s nurse who co-chaired the local bargaining unit, said in an interview Friday evening. “But we gained improvements in having registered nurse staffing at the bedside increased, which is why we went out on strike, to make sure that our patients were safely cared for.”
Walsh, the former mayor of Boston, sat down at the bargaining table with representatives from the union and from Tenet in Massachusetts on Friday, after federal mediators worked for two weeks to reach an accord the two sides had not been able to achieve in two years of negotiations, the union said in a statement.
Walsh had been in contact with both sides over several months, according to a person familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations.
Walsh said in a statement Friday night that he was “gratified today to be with both parties as we crafted a final agreement together to end the strike” after the long period of negotiations.
“I want to thank both St. Vincent Hospital and Massachusetts Nurses Association for their dedication to getting this done and for continuing to keep our community healthy,” Walsh said.
Pellegrino credited Walsh, who she said had “a very calming effect” in the negotiating room, and the nurses’ solidarity for getting them to a final agreement.
“Secretary Walsh was unbelievably gracious, so respectful. He’s been a huge supporter,” Pellegrino said. “He facilitated and he made these two sides come together, but at the end of the day, it’s really the strength and power of the striking registered nurses standing together. We stood up for one another and we stood up for our patients.”
The striking nurses drew widespread support from the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation, many of whom visited the picket line.
In a joint statement Friday night, US Senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren and US Representatives James McGovern and Lori Trahan called the agreement “a win for Worcester, for organized labor, for the health care workers who have stood on the frontlines of this pandemic, and, ultimately, for patients.”
“As Massachusetts is again seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases, we are grateful that these health care heroes are able to return to work,” the lawmakers said. “We thank Secretary Walsh and the Biden administration for helping to bring about this agreement and an end to this strike.”
Pellegrino announced the tentative deal to the membership on a Zoom teleconference call early Friday evening.
“They are just thrilled beyond belief,” she said of members. “We will be going back home, going back into our hospital with our patients, which is where we wanted to be. ... Solidarity really got us through the day. All of the days.”
She said nurses had also secured the guarantee “that every single nurse would return to their exact position that they left before they went on strike — their exact position, their shift, their hours, not being replaced.”
In a statement, Dominique Muldoon, a registered nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the bargaining unit, said the tentative agreement allows nurses to “go back into that building with great pride not just in what we got in writing in the agreement, but for what we have built together as nurses who know they did everything they could for their patients and their community.”
“Once this is ratified by the members, we are now committed to getting back into that building as soon as possible to provide the care our patients deserve,” Muldoon said.
Marie Ritacco, a registered nurse, member of the negotiating committee, and vice president of the nurses association, said she had “pride and appreciation for all 700 nurses literally put everything on the line for their patients and this community.”
Ritacco said that nurses had been “moved and uplifted by all the support we received throughout this ordeal, from people honking their horns, or stopping by with food or water, for those who put up signs or walked the line with us.”
She also thanked local organizations, congressional leaders, legislators, the City Council, and the mayor of Worcester for their support.
Nurses’ strikes typically last a few days, so this conflict attracted national attention, as St. Vincent nurses picketed for 285 days, making it the longest nurses’ strike in the nation in more than 15 years and the second longest in state history, according to the union.
In Massachusetts, the last open-ended nurses’ strike continued for 103 days in 2001.
The main issue in the dispute was staffing levels. Nurses said they had too many patients to care for safely at the hospital.
Hospital officials hired hundreds of temporary replacement nurses while their staff nurses picketed outside, saying it was no longer sustainable for them to keep all services.
In July, the Worcester hospital said it would close 80 inpatient beds, amounting to 30 percent of its medical and surgical capacity. It also shuttered 25 percent of its critical care beds and half of its beds for patients with psychiatric illness.