by Sam Skinner
The MNA nurses’ strike at St. Vincent hospital is now the longest in Massachusetts history. Nurses first walked out of St. Vincent in March in response to unsafe patient limits, inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), and unsafe working conditions. Tenet has continued their dangerous tactics of chronic understaffing, union-busting, and underfunding that led to the strike in the first place.
In August, Tenet and the MNA reached a tentative agreement on new safer staffing rules, only to have Tenet turn around and refuse to allow over 100 striking nurses to return to their jobs. The nurses targeted by Tenet include many senior nurses at the top of the pay scale who have been active in the current strike and were part of the last MNA strike at St. Vincent in 2001. This is a clear attempt to break the nurses’ union at St. Vincent by removing the most experienced and militant members of the MNA.
Reports of nearly 100 bed closures at St. Vincent show that the strike is having a real effect on Tenet’s ability to fully profit off of patients and workers in Worcester. The increased pressure that these bed closures have put on other healthcare centers in the area such as Umass Medical has led some public officials to call the situation a “public health crisis.” As well, prolonging the strike this long has cost Tenet over $3.1 million. Most of this money has been spent on hiring police officers from the Worcester Police Department in order to ensure that scabs and management can continue to keep St. Vincent running at its reduced levels. Job openings at St. Vincent suggest that Tenet is still struggling to replace the almost 800 MNA nurses who walked out months ago, with St. Vincent advertising 500 open positions for new nurses. St. Vincent is failing to replace striking nurses because of the infamous conditions inside the hospital and because of the national shortage of nurses.
However, despite the local losses for Tenet in Worcester, the multi-billion dollar corporation still made over $448 million in profits last quarter. As well, Tenet has received $523 million from federal relief funds over the course of the pandemic. Because of their size, Tenet is wagering that it will be worth it in the short run to operate at reduced or even negative profits at St. Vincent if in the long run this allows Tenet to break the strike and ultimately the MNA at St. Vincent.
St. Vincent is keeping over 100 highly experienced strikers out of the positions some have spent decades working in. After being on strike for over 200 days, the nurses face added pressure from both Tenet and the state government through the canceling of their unemployment and health insurance. Tenet’s lawyers have declared an impasse in their negotiations with the nurses—legalese meaning that Tenet can now unilaterally implement a contract that does not meet the nurses’ demands. Declaring an impasse in contract negotiations is being used as a threat to try and coerce striking nurses to cross the picket line and abandon the nurses who Tenet refuses to rehire. Returning to work under these circumstances would mean a defeat for the union and would pave the way for even worse contracts and working conditions in the future, even an attempt to decertify the union and remove all protections that come with union certification. As Tenet brings their “last, best, and final offer” to the MNA, the striking nurses must in turn deliver a decisive blow to Tenet’s bottom line to win the strike.
In order to defeat Tenet, the MNA nurses will need a lot more support from other unions in the area, as well as non-union workers in Worcester and beyond. Several organizations such as the Independent Socialist Group (ISG), Jobs for Justice, and others have held events on the St. Vincent picket line in solidarity with the nurses. Rallies, community pickets, and standouts across the city must become more common, larger, and more militant, and be called by the MNA and other unions in addition to community organizations. Without a strong picket line, there is no chance to defeat Tenet, because it is a strong picket line that will hurt the profits of Tenet the most and force them back to the table to accept the nurses’ demands. The MNA and other unions should organize regular mass rallies at the picket line, drawing in their members and workers from all over the state to help fight Tenet. A loss for the MNA in Worcester will only embolden hospital corporations elsewhere to attack MNA nurses’ working conditions statewide; therefore, an effort must be made to bring MNA nurses from all over the state to support the St. Vincent nurses on a regular basis.
Uniting the struggles of workers in central Massachusetts and beyond will beat Tenet, not the hollow promises of local and state Democratic or Republican politicians. Over the 200-plus days of the strike, dozens of corporate party politicians have visited the St. Vincent picket line. They’ve had their pictures taken with the nurses a few times, then they disappear. While they claim to be “working behind the scenes” to “put pressure on Tenet,” there is no evidence that any of this is effective. Strongly worded letters will not put an end to Tenet’s attack on nurses’ and patients’ safety. At the end of the day, it is these same politicians who vote for laws that weaken union rights, prevent mandatory safe staffing limits and other real improvements to healthcare, and provide tax cuts to these same hospital corporations who profit off of everyday working people.
The attack on MNA nurses is just one example of wildly profitable corporations causing dangerous working conditions and underpaying workers. In order to fight for workers’ rights on a mass scale, we need to start organizing a political party for working people, independent of the Democratic and Republican parties. A workers’ party of unions, community and progressive groups, and working people would provide a way for organized and unorganized workers to join together and fight back against big corporations like Tenet.
A unified struggle of working people in Worcester must begin with solidarity between unionized workers at St. Vincent. The UFCW 1445 and Teamsters 170 union leaders have refused to honor the picket lines of the MNA nurses at St. Vincent. The UFCW and Teamster union leaders have allowed their members to cross the picket lines since day one of the nurses’ strike at St. Vincent. The UFCW contract was being negotiated when the MNA nurses began their strike. They could have negotiated jointly with the MNA. A recent negotiation of healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente on the west coast included many different unions negotiating together, threatening to strike together, and winning new contracts together. If the MNA is defeated at St. Vincent, it will only be a matter of time before Tenet goes after the UFCW and Teamsters workers at St. Vincent. If the Teamsters and UFCW had gone out with the MNA nurses on day one of the strike, all three unions could have won the strike quickly. Instead, the unions at St. Vincent are allowing themselves to be divided by Tenet.
It is not too late for these unions to join the MNA on the picket line. Apologists for the Teamsters and UFCW have pointed out—correctly—that this would be a violation of these unions’ existing contracts, and illegal. However, this is not the be-all-end-all of the issue. The West Virginia Teacher’s Strike a few years ago was also illegal, but it was also one of the most successful strikes in recent memory. Many strikes are declared illegal. Tenet’s union-busting is “legal.” The working class will always come up against the law when it fights for its rights. It used to be illegal to join a union in the first place until working people fought for the right to unionize, collectively bargain, and strike. We didn’t win these rights by losing strikes on account of legal technicalities, but by fighting corporate greed with militant workplace action and solidarity.
The St. Vincent nurses’ strike can still be won. The nurses’ demands can still be met, and all striking nurses can return to their old positions. All that is required is a shift in strategy, away from relying on Democratic Party politicians and staying within the bounds of labor law that was written to weaken unions. Real solidarity, mass support from organized labor and the broader working class of Massachusetts, and unified strike action are what it will take to defeat a huge corporation like Tenet. The Independent Socialist Group has stood with the MNA nurses since the first day of the strike, and even before the strike began, at informational picketing and also during the Yes on 1 campaign in 2017. It is in the spirit of solidarity and as part of our continued support for the strike that we offer the following proposals:
- Regular mass rallies to strengthen the St. Vincent strike. MNA members from around the state should be bussed in regularly and in an organized fashion, along with members of other unions and MNA supporters, in order to put pressure on Tenet by reinforcing the picket line.
- Regular standouts, leafleting, and canvassing across the city by MNA members and supporters to raise awareness about the MNA strike. Spread word of the strike and motivate workers and young people in Worcester to come fill out the picket line and support the MNA nurses.
- Members of the Teamsters and UFCW at St. Vincent should take job action in support of the nurse’s strike. Unions should not be crossing each other’s picket lines. At the very least, the Teamsters and UFCW locals within St. Vincent should be organizing regular, mass visits of rank-and file members to the nurse’s picket line to show support and help put pressure on Tenet. This could be a first step in mobilizing these unions to organize strike action to help the nurses win their strike and secure a deal that benefits all of the unions at St. Vincent.
- State and nationwide workplace actions in support of the MNA strike at St. Vincent. The AFL-CIO and other unions outside of it need to organize to support the striking nurses, through solidarity strikes and mass pickets at St. Vincent and other Tenet-owned hospitals and properties.
We also encourage anyone who wants to support the nurses on strike to visit the MNA web page for the strike and donate to the union’s strike fund, send messages of support, visit the strike headquarters and picket line.