March and rally in support of strike was held April 26 …
By Jim Coughlin
St. Vincent’s Hospital in downtown Worcester was the scene on Wednesday, April 20, of a rally in support of the over 850 registered nurses who have been on strike there since March 8 against the Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare which operates the hospital.
According to David Schildmeier, the press secretary for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, MNA, the union to which the striking nurses belong, the march was billed as a “March to support St. Vincent Hospital nurses.”
The rally was preceded by a march that began at City Hall and culminated at the north entrance to the hospital. The event was sponsored and organized by PUMA, The Parents Union of Massachusetts and Jobs with Justice, with participation by the Tenant and Housing Alliance, Latinas United and Rock of Salvation Church.
In a press release from PUMA, Nelly Medina, the group’s organizer, in announcing their support for the nurses, said, “We support the St. Vincent Nurse’s decision to strike because we have a stake in the outcome of this struggle as it will ensure the ultimate safety of our community.”
“Our children are the future and, as we support the Nurses at St. Vincent’s, with this event we model for them how to stand in solidarity with workers against unbridled capitalism and corporate greed,” Medina said.
In a wide-ranging, 40-minute telephone interview with Maria Ritacco, the vice president of the MNA who also serves as a member of the bargaining unit for St. Vincent’s nurses, she said the strike “is over improvements in patient safety.”
Ritacco has worked at St. Vincent’s for nearly 30 years as a registered nurse, beginning in 1983. “I have worked my entire career at St. Vincent’s Hospital,” she said, that has for generations been known as “St. Vs.” She began working in the surgical unit, then five years in the Intensive Care Unit, (ICU) and currently works in the recovery room.
She said her union would like the ratio of nurses to patients in the various units of the hospital such as Medical Surgery, the Emergency Room, [ER] Intensive Care, [ICU] and In-Patient increased to all be reduced. “The hospital ignored all of our requests to even discuss this staffing issue because they thought that the nurses would not go on strike if they did not improve ratios,” Ritacco said.
She said she thought the strike authorization vote would be enough to get them to discuss staffing improvements. However, she added that “it [the strike vote] just didn’t happen in two months. We were considering a job action before the pandemic. When COVID hit a year ago, we decided to put off the job action until the COVID numbers came down. If there was no progress at the [bargaining] table, we would then consider job action in early February, [this year].
The union leader said Worcester’s two other hospitals: Memorial and UMass Memorial Medical Center have already established the nursing ratios that the union is currently seeking to establish at St. Vincent’s. “It’s not an unusual practice,” she said.
She took St. V’s to task for their unusually high profit margin of 14%, which contrasts with the much lower profit margins of the city’s other hospitals – which is around 3% – and the 3.5% average profit rate for hospitals nationally.
She mentioned the hospital’s actual amount of profit last year was recorded at $414 million. In a press release, the union said on the day of the nurse’s strike authorization vote, the hospital had announced their profit margin.
In the course of my interview with the union leader and member of the bargaining unit, she said the “strike was not about their pay grade” and only
spoke of “patient ratios and patient safety.” However, when asked about an increase in their pay grade, she would only say the union and the hospital “were close to an agreement” [on a salary increase] but declined to get specific.
“The hospital was happy to throw a little bit of money at nurses as opposed to meeting our demands for changes in staffing to improving staffing to enhance patient safety,” Ritacco said. She also said throughout the 45-day strike the hospital has been bringing replacement nurses to staff the hospital in their absence. Ritacco said those nurses are being flown in “from throughout the country” and are being paid double (between $95 and $100 hourly) than what the regular St. V’s nurses were being paid.
She said the hospital “has been spending approximately forty-five million dollars to beat back the demands of the nurses, in addition to paying for the daily Worcester police detail.
In a press release, the union said the police detail “costs more than $30,000 a day.”
Ritacco said her membership “is not going in the building until the staffing problems are resolved.” When asked if she sees an eventual resolution of the strike, she said, “There is no doubt in my mind that the hospital will come back to the bargaining table. … Their goal is to make as much money as possible, and nurses are interfering with that by withholding their labor.”
Meanwhile, the union has established a strike fund which she said nurses have access to “on a weekly basis.” There is also a “Diaper and Baby Formula Bank” which has been set up to aid nurses and their children that was initiated by a nurse at UMass/ Memorial Medical Center.
They have also garnered the political support of Massachusetts’s two United States Senators: Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, along with Worcester’s Congressman Jim McGovern and the entire Worcester City Council and Mayor Joseph Petty.
On April 26, it was announced that the two sides in the dispute had returned to negotiations but, after briefly meeting with hospital representatives, the union issued a statement calling the hospital’s offer “insulting.”