Photo: Solidarity photo of ISG members at a December meeting
On Friday St. Vincent Hospital announced a tentative agreement for 800 nurses organized within the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) to return to work. The Independent Socialist Group congratulates the nurses who have struck for 9 months to defend and improve their working conditions and their patients’ safety. The determination of the nurses and their supporters put enough pressure on Tenet and for-profit healthcare generally to win a tentative agreement, which could pave the way for concluding this historic strike if it addresses the nurses’ concerns and is ratified by the St. Vincent union nurses.
When the union and hospital corporation reached a contract agreement in August, the hospital abruptly refused to allow the striking nurses to return to their original positions. This was an attack on pay and seniority intended to divide the striking nurses. In a divide and conquer attempt, the hospital permanently replaced the positions of over 100 striking nurses with scabs. Tenet then claimed that 100 of the most experienced, longest-serving striking nurses could not return as their positions were filled. This maneuver to fire these nurses conveniently included many nurses who have seniority and are higher on the pay scale (so replacing them means cheaper labor costs for Tenet), as well as nurses who played an important role in the last strike at St. Vincent in 2001, and who are leaders in the current strike. The MNA has correctly stayed out on strike until all nurses are guaranteed a return to work.
U.S. healthcare was in crisis for decades before the pandemic and has only worsened as healthcare facilities continue to cut costs. Corporations like Tenet use a business model centered around competition, acquisitions, and mergers, all towards monopolization and capitalist rationing of healthcare in the name of profit. Hospital corporations cut staff and services before (and during) the pandemic in order to make higher profits and then complain they are “overwhelmed” when in reality their goal is to always cut staffing down to the bone in order to boost profits. Hospital corporations spent tens of millions of dollars in 2018 defeating a ballot initiative to legally mandate safe patient limits in Massachusetts. Capitalism’s profit-motive set up the U.S. healthcare system to fail to meet the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with vaccines in hand, global capitalism cannot forfeit profits long enough to mass distribute vaccines around the world and effectively end the pandemic.
Now, as the Omicron variant wave looms, hospitals are woefully unprepared. It is possible that St. Vincent hoped to break the strike by outwaiting the pandemic. Instead, it appears that the impending Omicron wave helped push the hospital corporation to settle and bring back all the staff possible.
It is a notable step forward, with likely nationwide impact, for the St. Vincent nurses to win some safe staffing improvements in a tentative contract agreement. While the union nurses have shown great strength in striking for 9 months and counting, the strike could have been won much sooner. The labor movement, including rank-and-file members in the MNA, must seriously discuss the lessons of the strike. St. Vincent Hospital is organized by three separate unions – the MNA, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1445, and the Teamsters Local 170. UFCW janitorial, cafeteria, and other hospital workers were in the midst of contract negotiations in March of 2021 when the nurses began their strike. UFCW called a one-day joint picket with the MNA. That picket hinted at a joint walkout between the 800 nurses and 600 UFCW workers on staff which could have shut down the hospital immediately! Instead, Tenet placated the Local 1445 leadership with slight contract improvements, and the union bureaucracy accepted this weak offer rather than recognizing the opportunity for joint strike action with the nurses.
Rather than genuine solidarity with the striking nurses, two unions continue to cross the MNA’s picket line, completely squandering the opportunity to shut down St. Vincent hospital through striking together for the benefit of every worker and patient. This is a mistake the labor movement cannot continue to make. Solidarity between unions and workers must be more than words; it must come through action including refusal to cross picket lines, joint strikes and coordinated, united contract negotiations, mass rallies and pickets, and sharing resources.
The fight for better working conditions can, and should be, spread to other healthcare facilities. It is not just St. Vincent nurses who have fought to protect themselves and their patients by going on strike; 2021 has seen a wave of nurses and other healthcare workers fed up with being overworked and unable to adequately care for their patients. During the course of the strike, MNA organized healthcare facilities held labor actions to fight for better contracts, including at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, MA, and the Boston VNA. However, despite these workplaces struggling around similar issues, the opportunity to link these struggles together into joint strike efforts across Massachusetts was lost.
Spreading the nurses’ strike to other facilities and organizing mass rallies and pickets would have shown the nurses that the labor movement had their back. Such tactics would have greatly increased the pressure on Tenet and other companies to settle quickly or risk their profits. In the recent Kaiser Permanente struggle, multiple unions representing tens of thousands of healthcare workers publicly stated they were ready to go on strike together and they successfully negotiated to stop the corporation’s attempt to create a two-tiered wage system that would divide workers.
The St. Vincent nurses’ strike proves that collective organizing can win better working and living conditions for working people! But union leadership has grown complacent over the last 50 years. Union bureaucrats would rather offer concessions to the bosses, like increased employee healthcare costs and settling for meager pay raises, instead of fighting for actual improvements, like ending multi-tiered systems that divide workers, reclaiming pensions, and serious wage increases that take into account inflation. The workers in Kentucky who died or were injured from being coerced to stay at work during deadly tornadoes this past week shows again why unions willing to fight for workplace safety and better working conditions are crucial.
Many union leaders view their role more as mediators between workers and bosses rather than the necessary role of putting members first and as champions of the class struggle. An often key element of this trend is union leadership forming “partnerships” with the corporate Democratic Party and its politicians and relying more on lobbying them rather than building workers’ power through organizing, militant tactics, and independent political action. And while the approach of the St. Vincent nurses strike correctly recognized management and Tenet Healthcare as diametrically opposed to the interests of the nurses, more combative tactics (such as mass rallies and mass pickets, standouts throughout the city, and car caravans across Worcester to raise support for the strike) that could have made the strike more effective were left by the wayside. The MNA leadership consistently called on Democrats at the city, state, and national levels to ‘talk sense’ into Tenet. They had faith that President Biden would weigh in and force Tenet to reach an agreement. Biden, who ran on promises of healthcare reform, in reality has no interest in fighting against for-profit healthcare. Nor do local Democrats in City Council, who claimed to speak in solidarity with the nurses on the picket line, but failed to prevent the Worcester Police Department from raking in nearly $4 million for weakening the effect of the strike and ensuring scabs can cross the picket line.
Prominent Democrat, Marty Walsh, the recently appointed Secretary of Labor, entered the contract negotiations with Tenet at the 11th hour. Already we are seeing a new myth being formed about Walsh’s supposedly heroic role in resolving the strike. This narrative undermines the importance of the nurses’ 9-month struggle, determination, and sacrifices as well as support and solidarity that are what truly made the tentative agreement possible.
As of now, unions spend millions of dollars lobbying Democrats who only pretend to represent working people’s interests. Socialists and rank-and-file union activists must organize for their unions to take steps towards independent working class politics. For example, the MNA should consider running one of the striking nurses as an independent for a public office position in Worcester. The campaign could be used to fight for standard of living improvements for workers in Worcester, including nurses, and applying pressure to St. Vincent/Tenet and other area hospitals. The MNA could discuss with other unions about running an independent slate of union members for state offices as a step towards forming a state labor party to really push for things including safe staffing ratios, hazard pay and much safer working conditions. Unions nationwide need to put major resources into helping to build an independent workers’ party. A workers’ party would strengthen efforts and solidarity for launching mass organizing drives at workplaces across the country as well as national campaigns to win serious reforms like universal healthcare and a federal living wage.
Members of the Independent Socialist Group have stood with the MNA nurses at St. Vincent since before the strike began. We joined the nurses during the 2018 Yes on One campaign to attempt to create statewide safe patient limits in Massachusetts, for pre-strike informational picketing at St. Vincent, and weekly on the picket line for the duration of the strike. We will continue to walk the picket line and support the nurses’ strike fund for the duration of the strike until a good contract is ratified by the St. Vincent nurses. Solidarity is still needed and if the tentative agreement is not good enough, it is possible that it will be voted down and the strike will continue onwards. Looking beyond the ongoing strike, future struggles for better working conditions and new contracts will arise, so it is crucial that the nurses and broader workers of St. Vincent Hospital learn the lessons of this strike. Perhaps the most important is the decisive need for solidarity and coordination between the MNA, Teamsters Local 170, and UFCW Local 1445 in the hospital, which can bring the next major labor dispute to a speedier conclusion. Only through workers’ solidarity, not just at St. Vincent, but across the healthcare industry, can we achieve stronger unions, safe patient limits, and universal healthcare.