Honk4Healthcare3 (Jess Morgan)By RALPH HANSEN

Over 120 workers and community members swarmed the Essentia Health campus in Duluth, Minn., on June 1. They came in cars and on foot to protest the proposed elimination of 900 health-care jobs.

The heart of the action was a car caravan of about 60 cars decked out with the slogans, “No Layoffs at Essentia!” and “Honk for Healthcare Workers!” These cars drove around and around the large campus, while zealously honking their horns. Dozens of other cars driving by joined in, dramatically amplifying the honking to the point at which it reverberated throughout downtown Duluth.

At the same time, workers and supporters held informational pickets on the corners of the main streets that run through the campus—holding signs and handing out handbills. And just like with the passing cars, pedestrians in their overwhelming majority indicated support for the workers.

Despite receiving almost $80,000,000 in federal aid, and already having several hundred workers on unpaid furlough, Essentia Health appears to have decided to use the excuse of the pandemic to conduct a major downsizing operation. The company, which is far and away the largest employer in the region, is in the midst of building a new hospital, which has run into major cost overruns.

In addition to this, the company has decided to use funds to buy an additional hospital in Moose Lake, Minn. And the workers are paying the price. Many departments are already seriously understaffed, since Essentia has been using attrition to reduce the workforce for some time. Now, despite being in the midst of a pandemic, the company has decided to make far deeper cuts.  Officially the company is claiming that it has to do this because of lost revenues, but in reality the drop in patient volumes has dramatically turned around in the past month.

Because of all of this, workers are outraged. To be a health-care worker laid off in the midst of a pandemic is not only absurd on the face of it, but to suddenly have to join the ranks of the uninsured, when health insurance is so crucial, is devastating.

There are several unions at Essentia Health. The June 1 action was organized by United Steelworkers Local 9460—the largest union at the company, and the one that represents workers from the janitorial staff to the Clinical Assistants. A number of other unions were present in solidarity at the action. Local 9460 is planning additional actions in the weeks ahead, and just signed a billboard contract to challenge Essentia’s narrative of these layoffs.

Meanwhile, the layoffs are underway, making the stakes of this fightback campaign all the more dire.

Photo: Jess Morgan