By SEBASTIAN GEISEL

After two years without an acceptable contract and during a worsening pandemic, brave nurses at Albany (N.Y.) Medical Center were forced into a 24-hour strike on Nov. 30. During the strike, 25 percent of the nursing staff walked out.  The strike was called a “Reckless gamble” by Albany Medical CEO, Dennis McKenna, who complained that the strike took place during the highest point for COVID-19 cases so far.

The “bad timing” of the strike had been made inevitable by McKenna and the Albany Med, and is a symptom of the stonewalling management has drawn out for two years. Demands include safe-staffing ratios, higher wages, and improvements to the retirement plan. These demands have only been met with one offer, a single wage increase of up to 3% per year for three years. The raise would not be guaranteed but largely be based on individual merit.

Nurses also complained that the hospital takes inadequate COVID safety precautions, with staff having to reuse degraded masks, and COVID-positive patients not being separated from others.

On the picket line

One of the main concerns on the picket line was unsafe staffing and how it worsens worker retention rates, one nurse told Socialist Resurgence: “People keep leaving, they’re overwhelmed, and that just makes the situation worse.” When asked about how management has responded to this she continued, “They lie to us constantly, that we have everything we need, that there is no shortage of PPE, that we are fully staffed, that we don’t need more staff. They ask nurses if they’re in the union and tell them not to be in the union. They’re doing everything in their power to stop us, including false information, and it’s sad.”

The employer offensive included hiring some 700 temporary nurses at higher rates for three days. This move by management to break the strike not only replaced nurses during the 24-hour strike but also pushed nurses off the schedule completely for the other two days.

The union has also filed an unfair practice charge against the hospital for illegally telling nurses to quit the union. Lawyers representing Albany Med and McKenna quickly denied it, as bosses always do in these situations.

Billions in revenue, pennies for staff

Albany Medical Center took in around $3.5 billion dollars in 2019 alone and still has failed to meet the union’s modest and reasonable demands. In the face of a public health crisis, CEO McKenna has the audacity to characterize the nurses who are taking a stand as “irresponsible, and frankly, quite heartbreaking.” No, this is not the case; in fact it is quite the opposite. The irresponsibility and heartlessness in the situation lie squarely on the side of the millionaire management. In 2019, Dennis McKenna helped himself to $1.6 million dollars in salary and benefits.

None of the billions lining the pockets of administrators and private medical companies through the Albany Medical Center could have been generated without nurses and other frontline health-care workers. Nurses in some cases have lost out on wages due to choosing to work in less intense units because they felt they could not safely carry out their duties with the current staffing levels. This resulted in as much as a $10/hour pay decrease for some people. What is truly “irresponsible” and “heartbreaking” is the reckless endangerment and greed that CEO McKenna continues to bring to the negotiation table. While nurses struggle to stay on top of their growing patient population, management continues to put patients’ lives, nurses’ lives, and nursing licenses at risk for their own gain. No more! These nurses deserve a decent wage and comfortable retirements. Patients, nurses, and the entire community deserve safe staffing and adequate PPE.