By DEAN COHEN and DAVID KIELY
On Saturday, July 31, dozens of labor and community activists marched in Worcester, Mass., in support of the nurses on strike against St. Vincent Hospital. The nurses, members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), have been on strike against St. Vincent Hospital for the last five months. The solidarity event was organized by Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, and supported by several socialist and social justice groups.
The striking nurses have been demanding a 1:4 nurses-patient ratio on medical and surgical floors, a 1:2 ratio in progressive care unit, an additional float nurse in critical care, staffing increased in the emergency department, and ancillary support in each unit.
St. Vincent’s parent company, Tenet Healthcare, based in Dallas, is among the largest hospital corporations in the US. It is ranked 172 in the Fortune 500 as of 2020, and operates 65 hospitals and over 500 healthcare facilities (1). The company has been refusing to bargain in good faith with the union and is trying to maintain its current 1:5 staffing ratio which nurses have repeatedly testified is unsafe. This past week, Tenet has announced further cuts in patient services in the face of rapidly rising COVID-19 numbers in Massachusetts. This was after posting a profit of $120 million for the second quarter of 2021.
The marchers assembled at Worcester City Hall and marched to St. Vincent, chanting “What kind of power? Union power!” They were met at the hospital by the nurses on the picket line, who greeted them with applause. A spirited rally was held in front of the hospital’s main gate, where the nurses and their supporters heard speeches condemning Tenet’s attempt to bust the union. The most rousing speech was delivered by Marlene Pellegrino, a strike leader who has worked at the hospital for 25 years. She told the marchers: “Your unwavering support for our cause has lifted our spirits on those days when we were down.” Pellegrino pointed out that “since our strike began Tenet has spent more than $95 million to prolong our nurses strike at St. Vincents hospital. Amazing that they can spend that money, and not any on our patients. A fraction of that would have funded our staffing improvements that nurses are seeking.”
Despite the obstacles of the strike the nurses are determined to win. Pellegrino continued by saying: “We did not stand on these sidewalks for more than five months to take anything less than what our patients, our community and our nurses deserve. To do so would be a total abdication of our professional responsibility as nurses. Our obligation dictated to us under our license to practice, our cherished profession, which is to serve as advocates for our patients. To do whatever we can to keep you safe. That is why we went out on March 8. That is why we will stay out here one day longer and one day stronger to fulfill that oath. We are out here for you.”
Talking with Pellegrino following the rally, she told us that the morale of the 700 nurses on strike was high and that they were ready to stay out as long as it took to win their demands. Other speakers from the community and labor groups called for mobilizing greater numbers of union members in support of the strike.
Tenet’s unsafe staffing practices are not unique to St. Vincents. On July 7 nurses from St. Vincents and Fountain Valley Regional Hospital in Orange County California sent a delegation to Tenet’s Dallas headquarters to deliver a petition demanding safer staffing at Tenet facilities. The nurses from Fountain Valley critically lacked staff and resources to maintain patient safety. Some employees were so poorly paid they couldn’t afford health insurance. A complaint issued by the union representing Fountain Valley (the National Union of Healthcare Workers) initiated an investigation by the California department of public health in 2020. The investigation found “systemic infection violations, including failure to isolate COVID-19 patients in designated COVID-19 units” (2).
Covid has revealed capitalism’s minimal concern for public health and safety. It has critically mismanaged the pandemic, and examples like Tenet show capitalists complete neglect. The management practices at St. Vincents are not unlike other Tenet facilities, and Tenet is not unique in for-profit health care. These practices are designed to produce the highest amount of profits possible. Their desire to seek profitability and reduce safety is only held in check by workers like the striking nurses at St. Vincents. The union and Tenet are scheduled to resume talks on Monday, Aug. 2. A victory at St. Vincents would provide inspiration and morale to other nurses and workers to fight for good quality care and working conditions.
Photo: David Kiely / Socialist Resurgence