WORCESTER, Mass.—The Massachusetts Nurses Association [MNA] has filed a federal unfair-labor-practices complaint against Saint Vincent Hospital here, after management attempted to quash the 7½-month-old strike by imposing a contract in which strikebreakers would get to keep the jobs of the nurses they’ve replaced.
The MNA said Oct. 15 that Tenet Healthcare, the Dallas-based chain that owns the hospital, is now “ceasing all efforts to reach an agreement to end the strike to allow the striking nurses to return to their previous positions so the hospital can safely reopen beds and services the community needs to address the surge caused by the Delta variant.”
Tenet “has already spent more than $100 million to force and prolong this strike,” the union added.
The contract imposed, which went into effect Oct. 17 for the strikebreaking nurses currently working in the hospital, is management’s “last, best, and final offer” from early August. The MNA had agreed to most of it, accepting its improvements in staffing — the problem that provoked the strike — but found two provisions unacceptable. It did not include a standard return-to-work clause, in which strikers go back to the same jobs and shifts they had before (such as weekday shifts earned by seniority), and it would pay bonuses that would be much larger for strikebreakers.
“We contend the impasse was the result of bad-faith bargaining by the hospital,” says Alan J. McDonald, the lawyer who filed the MNA’s complaint with the National Labor Relations Board Oct. 15. Under federal law, he explains, employers can declare that contract talks are at an impasse and unilaterally impose their last offer only if the parties had been bargaining in good faith.
The formula used to calculate the bonus, McDonald told LaborPress, is “designed to reward the nonstrikers and punish the strikers,” which is illegal under federal labor law. It would give nurses 3% of the pay listed on their W-2 form for 2021 — a year in which more than 700 nurses worked for two months and have been on strike since March 1.
Saint Vincent’s management is insisting on keeping strikebreakers in the jobs it’s given them. “The replacement nurses have performed admirably and cared for our community during this difficult pandemic,” CEO Carolyn Jackson said in a statement Oct. 15. “The hospital will not forcibly displace them.”
Jackson blamed the union for “needlessly prolonging” the strike. As the MNA has accepted the staffing levels in the hospital’s final offer, “staffing is no longer an issue in negotiations,” she said. “Instead, the union is holding up an agreement to return hundreds of nurses back to work over a small number of nurses who may have to return to jobs that are different from their exact pre-strike positions.”
In an “open letter to striking nurses” posted on the hospital’s Website Oct. 18, she urged them to defy the union and return to work.
“Each and every person who has crossed the picket line to come to work has received some level of harassment,” she wrote. “They have all survived the bullying and are stronger for it. They welcome others back who want to return and will help ease the pain of the harsh words you may receive by sharing their own experiences.”
The hospital has been operating with less than half its previous nursing staff. Close to 700 nurses are still on strike, according to the MNA. Management says it has 344 nurses “currently working or soon to be working,” and has, so far, hired 217 strikebreakers. The union says Tenet has more than 540 nursing vacancies posted.
“The numbers of vacancies has increased not decreased, which is a sign that they are having trouble recruiting nurses, and that nurses are leaving due to the conditions inside,” longtime nurse Marlena Pellegrino, cochair of the local bargaining unit, said in a statement issued by the MNA.
The complaint is the eleventh the union has filed since the strike began in March. The others, says McDonald, have included intimidation, threats, promising rewards to strike breakers, failing to provide information required for the bargaining process, having security kick out strikers visiting sick relatives, and refusing to supply personnel information when they apply for temporary jobs at other hospitals.
All 11 complaints are currently being investigated by the NLRB. If the regional officer finds they have probable cause and management doesn’t resolve them satisfactorily, they will go to an administrative law judge. If the judge rules in the union’s favor, the employer can appeal to the national NLRB.
That process can take years, but if the judge finds that the employer unlawfully hired strikebreakers or unlawfully imposed a contract, says McDonald, “they have to worry about damages.”
Under federal law, an employer can permanently replace workers in a strike over economic issues, but not in one against unfair labor practices. “This started out as an economic strike, but we believe it’s been converted into an unfair-labor-practice strike,“ McDonald says.
The MNA says the nurses won’t return until all strikers get their old jobs back and all unfair labor practices are resolved.
“I want Tenet to know that we will not allow Worcester to be a testing ground for the imposition of unprecedented labor practices that harm unions and all workers,” Worcester Mayor Joseph M. Petty said in a statement Sept. 30. “And when it comes to our nurses, who have given so much to us for so many years, I want Tenet to know that we in Worcester believe that they are irreplaceable.”