WORCESTER, Mass.—Striking nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital here filed unfair labor practice charges Aug. 30 after a deal to end their six-month-old walkout collapsed when the hospital’s owner refused to guarantee that all 700 strikers would be able to return to their previous jobs, saying it would not displace strikebreakers hired as permanent replacements.
“We accepted a staffing proposal and were ready to end the strike,” Massachusetts Nurses Association spokesperson David Schildmeier told LaborPress. The hospital’s last offer was less than the union’s demand for a maximum of four patients per nurse, but “it would have been enough to improve conditions at the hospital,” says longtime medical-surgical nurse Marlena Pellegrino, cochair of the local bargaining unit.
But the agreement fell apart when the Worcester hospital’s management insisted that the union drop all previous unfair-labor-practice allegations filed with the National Labor Relations Board. It also refused to include a standard “back to work” provision that would ensure that all nurses who went out on strike would have the right to return to the same position, hours, and shift that they’d had before.
Instead, management urged the union to “accept the reality that the hospital will not involuntarily displace its permanent replacement nurses,” it said in a statement Aug. 24. It would guarantee that strikers returning to work would have a job, but “the hospital will not force any nurse in a current role to lose his or her job.”
Calling the more than 140 strikebreakers it had hired “nurses who bravely joined the hospital during the course of the strike,” management blamed the union for ignoring the risks their hiring “posed to the jobs previously held by the striking nurses.”
Management’s version of a back-to-work agreement, Pellegrino told LaborPress, “was completely punitive, completely retaliatory,” and would have given strikebreakers desirable jobs while bumping very experienced nurses.
The eight unfair-labor-practice charges filed Aug. 30 against Tenet Healthcare, the massive Dallas-based chain that acquired Saint Vincent in 2013, include allegations that management threatened to do away with the union, to fire union leaders, and promised better jobs to nurses who crossed picket lines, Schildmeier says.
“These charges are extremely serious as they allege significant unlawful interference in the strike, and extremely troublesome behavior by hospital management,” Pellegrino said in a statement released by the MNA.
“They’ve been charged with illegally trying to break our union,” she told LaborPress.
The strike began in March after more than a year of fruitless negotiations about increasing staffing. Strike leaders say Tenet was so obsessed with cutting costs that it furloughed nurses during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
The MNA says this is part of a pattern of abuses by Tenet, which owns 65 hospitals and more than 450 outpatient facilities, including 45 surgery centers it bought for $1.1 billion last December. In February, a federal judge ordered the company to pay $10.6 million in damages to two cardiologists who were fired after they said several patients at Tenet’s Detroit Medical Center had died from unnecessary medical procedures and blood-testing equipment being removed to cut costs. In June, four emergency-room nurses at another Detroit hospital sued Tenet for $25 million, charging that they were fired as retaliation for talking to the media and government officials about poor safety procedures and dangerous levels of understaffing at the peak of the pandemic.
Pellegrino says that going back to work under management’s terms “would make staffing worse” than it was when the strike began. Under those terms, more than 100 experienced nurses, some with 30 to 40 years on the job, would be replaced by novices and recent nursing-school graduates, many in high-stakes positions like the intensive-care unit, the nursery, labor and delivery, the emergency room, and the cardiac-catheter lab.
“All areas where we would never have novices or new grads working,” she says. They would replace a nurse with 40 years experience “taking care of critically ill babies.”
Management’s Aug. 24 statement said it had “temporarily paused” hiring permanent replacement nurses while negotiations were going on, “but hiring has restarted and will continue at a rapid pace.” It said that in the previous week, 15 nurses had accepted job offers, and it was awaiting responses from 10 more.
“Time is of the essence,” it warned. “Other external nurses are applying for posted permanent roles.”
“This is a war of attrition,” Schildmeier says. Tenet, he contends, could have hired enough nurses to meet the union’s staffing demands for maybe one-fifth of the more than $100 million it’s spent on fighting the strike, on hiring strikebreakers and beefing up security.
“If their goal was to have a contract, we would have one by now. It’s a very callous agenda when you have patients’ lives on the line,” Pellegrino says. “It’s supposed to be a health-care corporation. I’ve never seen anything like this in 35 years of nursing.”