Essentia Health is far and away the largest employer in Duluth, Minn. Its sprawling main campus is a neighborhood unto itself, and its clinics and other facilities spread out across region into almost every community of more than a few thousand people. Its very well-paid CEO and other top executives have overseen year after year of dramatic expansion, and are currently in the process of building a new state of the art $800,000,000 hospital. Business has certainly been good for Essentia Health.

But a big part of Essentia’s growth has come at the expense of its workers. For years they have been made to take on more and more work, while vacancies are left unfilled. This is sadly a common trend throughout health care, and it is nothing short of a slow-motion speedup. Tragically, but not surprisingly, the coming of the COVID-19 pandemic has only thrown more fuel on an already burning fire. Since the pandemic began, hundreds of Essentia workers were furloughed to save costs, while those who remained behind worked even more short staffed, with inadequate PPE (personal protective equipment), and without receiving any kind of hazard pay.

Now, months into the pandemic, despite receiving almost $80,000,000 from the government, the state of Minnesota is allowing health-care providers to start scheduling elective procedures again. Yet Essentia announced last week that they plan on permanently eliminating a shocking 900 jobs, citing losses due to the pandemic. 

In their PR statements, they talk about how even the executives at the top are making sacrifices, but the reality is that Essentia Health in no way needs to eliminate 900 jobs to keep the lights on. The fact that they have money to continue building their new giant hospital in Duluth, and to buy a new one in Moose Lake, speaks volumes.

Workers have responded to Essentia’s announcement with outrage. The largest union at Essentia, United Steelworkers Local 9460, has announced a fightback campaign. Instead of just relying on negotiations, the union is planning on taking to the streets, and reaching out to the community. On June 1, the union will be mounting a mass car caravan to converge on Essentia’s main campus, while workers hold a simultaneous informational picket. Other actions are in the works and will take place throughout northern Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Billboards, full-page newspaper ads, yard signs, and an online campaign are also planned as part of the fight back campaign.

This showdown between the region’s largest employer and the region’s largest union will no doubt effect workers throughout the region, not just in health care. Now more than ever, it’s crucial for the labor movement to fight back against any and every attempt by employers to take advantage of this pandemic to attack workers.

Stay tuned for more coverage of this important struggle. NO LAYOFFS AT ESSENTIA!  SUPPORT HEALTH-CARE WORKERS!