In the United States, at St. Vincent’s Hospital in the state of Massachusetts (whose capital is Boston), nurses have been on a massive strike for 122 days to get the powerful Tenet company, which owns the hospital, to respond positively to their demands, a strike carried out with the support and participation of the trade union organisation.
Thanks to the American labour activists who publish the newspaper The Organizer, and who are affiliated to the International Workers’ Committee, we can provide information on how this conflict unfolded and what it means for the entire American labour movement. The article below is based on excerpts from an article by Sandy Eaton, a former leader of a health care workers’ union, and an article by Rand Wilson and Mark Dudzic, president of the Universal Social Security Association.
Now Tenet is seeking to break the strike by any means necessary, including replacing strikers with permanently hired workers. In the face of this provocation, it is the entire workers’ movement, from the bottom up and from the top down, that must fight back.
Such a movement will bring back into the struggle an essential slogan of the trade union movement (officially adopted by the AFL-CIO congress), that of a pay-as-you-go social security system. A demand that is now rejected by Biden, as it was yesterday by Trump.
For 122 days, the 800 nurses at St Vincent hospital, Worcester Massachusetts have been on strike. Why? To demand that healthcare corporation Tenet, which owns the facility, provide the needed PPE, staffing and other resources to ensure the safety of the patients and especially respond to the covid-19 pandemic. The safety of patients has been the focal point of the movement which has mobilised St Vincent nurses with the support of their union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers to which the Massachusetts Nurses Association is linked. For Tenet on the opposite, the only issue is profit, increased profit – as the strikers’ statement explains – by the fact that Tenet pocketed $2.6 billion in taxpayer funding to fight the pandemic.
The strike has been lasting since March 8. Despite the pressures and intimidation drives, the strikers have remained solid. Labor in the Worcester area and the community at large are supportive. Tenet refuses to give in. On the contrary. In the recent days, a worrying factor has emerged: Tenet is seeking to bust the strike and announces that it is ready to hire permanent staff to replace the strikers.
What is happening today with the strike at St Vincent hospital is of nation-wide importance for the American working-class movement. First of all because the cause of the conflict resonates throughout the entire American health-care system. Everywhere, the financial corporations which control the hospitals and the health-care industry have reaped stratospheric profits during the pandemic particularly by using the public funds they were awarded to respond to the pandemic.
Then, because what equals to firing strikers is a major attack on the right to strike.
This attack evokes a precedent that had a devastating effect on the whole American working-class movement (ref. “The 1981 Precedent).
On this point, what is needed to avoid the repetition of what happened in 1981 under Republican president Reagan is, under Democrat president Biden, the mobilisation of the whole working-class movement, of the AFL-CIO trade union. This is what the appeal of St Vincent strikers amounts to: “[Democrat] President Biden and [Democrat majority] in Congress will not act without it” Sandy Eaton writes and concludes. “Like a mighty wave, we must roll over this 72-year pattern of being beaten down. Our new normal in this post-pandemic era must include solidarity strong enough to shift the balance of power in this country.”
Press statement by the MNA (Massachusetts Nurses Association) (July 1, 2021)
“We are firmly resolved to maintain our strike until Tenet comes to the table”
Next week, a delegation of striking nurses from Tenet Healthcareowned St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Mass., will travel to the corporation’s headquarters in Dallas to make a direct appeal to the corporate executives to finally respond to the nurses’ call for safer staffing for
safer patient care. For this demand, St Vincent nurses have been engaged in what is now the longest nurse strike nationally in more than a decade. The strike has been in effect since March 8.
The strikers state: “After months of fruitless efforts trying to convince St. Vincent Hospital’s administration to provide us with the resources we need to protect our patients and our community, we have decided to travel to Dallas, Texas and speak directly to the corporate executives” (..) « Prior to and during the pandemic, our nurses, patients and community suffered greatly as a result of Tenet Healthcare’s failure to provide the staffing and resources we needed to keep our patients safe,” Pellegrino continued. “Tenet failed to safely staff St. Vincent Hospital while exposing nurses and other caregivers to higher risk of COVID19 due to lack of proper personal protective equipment. While Tenet pocketed more than $500 million in profits using pandemic relief money, our patients suffered preventable falls and bedsores, dangerous delays in receiving medications and other treatments. »
The delegation is bringing a petition signed by more than 700 striking nurses and will also call out Tenet for its blatant misuse of more than $2.6 billion in taxpayer-supported pandemic funding that was supposed to be used by hospitals to provide PPE, staffing and other resources but was used to fund corporate expansion, pay down debt, buy back stock for executives and, in the words of one of them, « to maximize our cash position. »
In this petition, St Vincent strikers conclude: “We are firmly resolved to maintain our strike until Tenet comes to the table and agrees to a contract that provides the necessary staffing improvements to ensure the safety of our patients. For nurses, this strike has nothing to do with profit and loss”. Our strike is based on the needs of our patients who “are our friends and neighbors. We will not let them down. »
The 1981 precedent
In an article on the strike of the Massachusetts nurses, Mark Dudzic, chair of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer, and Rand Wilson, former chief of staff at SEIU Local 888 in Boston, recall the precedent of the strike of air-traffic control busted by Reagan in 1981.
“For those of us old enough to remember, it evokes the rampage of union busting that followed the Reagan administration’s mass firing of striking air-traffic controllers in the notorious PATCO strike of 1981. Busting the air-traffic controllers’ union sent a signal to employers everywhere that it was acceptable for management to break strikes and bust unions.
In quick order, striking workers from copper miners in Arizona to newspaper workers in Detroit found themselves permanently replaced. Even more significantly, it changed the balance of power in labor/ management relations as labor’s most powerful weapon was neutralized.
This ushered in a devastating period of concessionary bargaining whose consequences are still being felt today. Reagan’s decision to fire the striking PATCO members was not some isolated act of pique by an outraged president. In fact, his administration jumped at the opportunity to give teeth to its explicit policy to weaken and undermine the considerable power of the U.S. labor movement. And it was very successful.
The U.S. labor movement was slow to respond to this provocation. Both of us can remember standing on the National Mall on Solidarity Day in 1981 with half a million other union workers. It had taken the AFL-CIO more than six weeks after the initial firings to call the rally, and they chose to hold it on a Saturday when Washington was shut down tight for the weekend.
As we dozed in the sun listening to endless speeches, we could see the planes taking off and landing unimpeded just across the Potomac at National Airport. What should have been a forceful exhibition of labor power had been turned into a demonstration of our impotence. Like many others who were there that day, we vowed to never let another PATCO moment go unchallenged.”