Massachusetts nurses fight for safety, patients’ health

Solidarity crucial as strike enters fifth month

By Jacob Perasso
August 30, 2021
Nurses from St. Vincent Hospital picket in Worcester, Mass., July 6. Some 700 nurses have been on strike since March 8. Fight for better nurse/patient ratios is at center of their struggle.
Boston Herald/Chris ChristoNurses from St. Vincent Hospital picket in Worcester, Mass., July 6. Some 700 nurses have been on strike since March 8. Fight for better nurse/patient ratios is at center of their struggle.

WORCESTER, Mass. — “We are holding strong,” Jackie Brosnihan, a nurse on strike here at St. Vincent hospital, told the Militant Aug. 14. Brosnihan is one of 700 nurses who walked off the job March 8 over dangerous conditions facing both staff and patients, as well as for respect, wages and benefits.

She was responding to the “last, best and final” Aug. 5 contract offer from Tenet Healthcare, which owns the hospital, and its threats to permanently replace the nurses. The Massachusetts Nurses Association says the offer “fails to provide the improvements in staffing that nurses need to keep patients safe.”

“We are reaching out to everyone possible for support,” Brosnihan added. “Just this week Boston Firefighters and Teamsters Local 170 came to bring support, cooking a meal and walking the picket line with us.” Strikers say numerous union delegations and others have joined the picket line and rallies over the course of the strike.

Tenet has been stepping up attempts to pressure nurses to end the strike. On Aug. 8, about three months after first announcing it would replace strikers, the company claimed it has hired 100 permanent replacement workers — a number the union distrusts — and plans to hire more until it replaces all the strikers.

But strikers say that won’t happen because of a shortage of nurses in the region and support they have won from other nurses. “The hospital is a ghost town, not many are left working there,” said Bill Lahey, a member of the union bargaining committee with over 40 years as a nurse at St. Vincent. He said that a nearby hospital is hiring hundreds of nurses and taking in new patients.

Tenet is also on a propaganda offensive, citing a recent article in U.S. News and World Report that claims St. Vincent is the ninth best hospital in the state and rated it “very high” for staffing.

The Nurses Association noted that 1,000 reports of unsafe staffing conditions were filed by nurses in the 18 months preceding the strike, a figure that the hospital bosses dispute. Nurses say a ratio of one nurse for four patients on average is needed, but St. Vincent insists that one for five is enough.

The best source of facts on staffing are the nurses themselves, the union said, noting that one of the most popular signs on the picket line is: “If nurses are out here, there is something wrong in there.”

Department heads at the hospital criticized the strike Aug. 13, accusing nurses of preventing patients from “accessing quality healthcare.” Showing which side they are on, these department heads claimed “smaller nurse to patient ratios have never been proven to provide safer care.” St. Vincent officials did not respond to questions from the Militant as of press time.

According to St. Vincent bosses, their final proposal includes some increases in staffing, a wage raise and hospital contribution to medical insurance costs, along with lump sum bonuses, one “for the most senior nurses” and a “3% bonus for hours worked in 2021.”

Nurses on the picket line said they were outraged at the proposed 2021 bonus, which would go mostly to the small number of nurses who crossed the picket line. Lahey called it “a scab bonus!” He said the offer, while still not enough, shows the strike is having an effect, pointing out St. Vincent now says they’ll agree “to cover 80% of our medical insurance. We have been fighting for that for 20 years, since the last strike at the hospital.”

Lahey also said the union has won agreement from the hospital on “some of the patient staffing grids we wanted,” but said the hospital still refuses to address staffing in the infant center critical nursery and the emergency room.

Tenet reported $120 million in profits for the second quarter of 2021. “The corporations penny pinch and the patients suffer,” said Brosnihan.

She noted that “several nurses who crossed the picket line came back out, because they did not want to be part of giving bad care.”

While this worker-correspondent was on the picket line, a patient pulled up as she went into the hospital and said to the nurses, “I support you! I’m not getting my knee surgery until you are back in the hospital!”

In working-class neighborhoods in Worcester, Socialist Workers Party campaigners found interest in discussing the strike and other issues facing working people.

“I’m 100% union, my parents were union, and I support the nurses,” Richard Johnson told the Militant on his doorstep. He added, “I knew the new owner would play hard ball.” Tenet bought the facility in 2013.

Lahey and others on the picket line were picked up by the large turnout at the United Mine Workers rally for striking Warrior Met Coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, Aug. 4. “That’s what we need to do here,” he said. Lahey had sent a message of solidarity to the miners June 3. “The courage you have shown helps all of us,” he wrote.

Help spread the word to back the strike at St. Vincent! Visit the picket line from 6 a.m. to midnight. Stop by the strike headquarters at 11 E. Central Street in Worcester. Send contributions for the strike fund to MNA Nurses Strike Fund, Massachusetts Nurses Association, 340 Turnpike St., Canton, MA 02021.