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Striking Hospital Workers in Buffalo Reach Tentative Deal; Others in Healthcare Continue the Fight

BUFFALO, N.Y.—Striking workers at Mercy Hospital here have reached a tentative deal to end their five-week-old strike, the Communications Workers of America [CWA] and Catholic Health System announced on the night of Nov. 4.

The proposed four-year contract would cover 2,700 union workers at three Catholic Health hospitals in the Buffalo area: the roughly 2,200 on strike at Mercy Hospital on the city’s south side and about 500 more at Kenmore Mercy Hospital and Sisters of Charity Hospital’s St. Joseph’s campus. They are represented by CWA Locals 1133 and 1168.

The CWA said it would not release details of the contract until after members have received comprehensive reports about it. It said it had scheduled meetings to explain the deal and vote on ratifying it over the weekend of Nov. 6-7, with the goal of returning to work by Wednesday, Nov. 10.

CWA District 1 Vice President Dennis Trainor and area director Debora Hayes said in a statement that they were “very pleased” with the tentative agreement.

“We have stressed from day one that frontline workers’ overriding concerns are sufficient staffing to ensure high-quality patient care, and a compensation package adequate to allow Catholic Health to attract and retain the staff needed to obtain staffing improvements,” they said. “This contract achieves those major objectives, with historic breakthroughs in guaranteed safe staffing ratios, substantial across the board wage increases, including bringing all workers above $15 an hour, and preserving health and retirement plans intact. Hundreds of new workers will be hired under this agreement to remedy dire staffing shortages.”

Understaffing was the main issue that provoked the walkout. It was also the sticking point that prevented a deal over the previous weekend: The CWA and Catholic Health had reached a tentative accord on pay, but talks broke down in the wee hours of Oct. 31. The union was insisting that nurses should have no more than four patients at a time, and the hospital would not agree to fewer than five.

“We listened to our associates and their primary concerns were market-competitive wages and increased staffing,” Mark Sullivan, president and CEO of Catholic Health, said in a statement. “These new contracts address both and more. We are ready to welcome our caregivers back to Mercy Hospital.”

On Nov. 3, Catholic Health said, it presented the union with a compromise solution: The hospitals would reallocate staffing resources across the care-delivery team to achieve the staffing numbers CWA sought. Sullivan said that would “comply fully with the New York State Safe Staffing law set to go into effect in January 2022” and also add 250 new positions “in the face of a nationwide staffing shortage.”

“Our members, the frontline nurses, technical, service and clerical workers at Catholic Health, made incredible sacrifices over the last five weeks to stand up for high-quality patient care in Buffalo, and this tentative agreement is a tremendous victory that sets new standards in care for the region,” Trainor and Hayes added.

Other Healthcare Strikes

Meanwhile, the bitter strike by 700 nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Mass., will reach its eight-month mark on Nov. 8. That strike is also largely over understaffing, with nurses complaining that Tenet Healthcare, the Dallas-based chain that owns the hospital, was furloughing nurses even at the peak of the pandemic. An agreement on a new contract foundered in August, when Tenet refused to give strikers their old jobs back if it meant bumping strikebreakers the company had brought in to fill those positions.

“After eight long months, sadly, it is clear that Tenet was never interested in a good faith effort to negotiate an equitable contract, but their ultimate goal is to destroy our union,” nurse Marlena Pellegrino, cochair of the Massachusetts Nurses Association’s local bargaining unit, said in a statement. “Tragically, it is our patients who are ultimately paying the price for these reprehensible practices.”

On the West Coast, 32,000 workers at the giant Kaiser Permanente health-care system gave notice Nov. 4 that they will strike on Nov. 15 if they can’t reach a contract deal by then. That walkout would involve 21,000 nurses, pharmacists, and other members of the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP) in Southern California; 7,400 members of United Steelworkers Local 7600 in Southern California; and 3,400 members of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals. 

The biggest issue there, according to UNAC/UHCP, is Kaiser’s demand for a two-tier contract, in which workers hired in the future would be paid 15% less.

“We’re saying no to a two-tier system and we mean it,” UNAC/UHCP Executive Vice President Charmaine Morales said in a statement. “A two-tier wage system would destroy team morale and be disastrous for recruiting new nurses and caregivers.”

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