Health sector strikes give mixed returns to workers tired by Covid

Healthcare workers in several states quit their jobs during the darkest times of the coronavirus pandemic to pressure employers for better wages and working conditions – a strategy that had decidedly mixed results.

While some unions have been able to win significant increases and safety improvements at the mere threat of a strike, others remain deadlocked with management months after the picket line. Nationally, the number of new health collective agreements has fallen by more than a third since the start of the pandemic, reaching 140 since March 2020, as strikes have increased by 22%, for reach 28 overall during that time, according to a Bloomberg. Legal database of union contracts and work stoppages.

The data, as well as interviews with union leaders and workers in three states, revealed differences in the effectiveness of union strikes based on a variety of factors, including specific health sector or employer circumstances. individuals. The public health emergency has elevated the struggle of low-income nursing home workers into public consciousness, while frontline nurses in intensive care units have found themselves overwhelmed by the pandemic, but with little weight. to pursue their goals.

“It was a horrible time,” said Kathy Santoiemma, registered nurse and chair of the New York State Nurses Association section at Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital near New York City, where nurses are stationed. went on strike in December as cases skyrocketed. “I never want to go through this again. I mean, my hospital was fully Covid on several occasions.

The two-day strike was aimed at addressing a staffing shortage caused by an exodus of nurses to nearby hospitals that offered better wages and benefits. Not much has changed since the strike, as the bargaining unit and Montefiore are still fighting over a contract that expired in 2018.

Limits of strikes

Even in normal times, healthcare workers find it more difficult to strike than unionized workers in other industries. Due to the life or death nature of the work nurses provide, it is illegal for them to leave without notice; the union must give management at least 10 days to find replacements and can only strike for a few days at most.

This removes the uncertainty and limits the public relations exposure that often prompts employers to close a deal. In 2019, for example, it took the United Auto Workers 40 days of strike action to reach a deal with General Motors.

“They know they can put bandages on the problem for a day and then, you know, we’re back to normal,” Santoiemma said. “And we are back to normal.”

Ian Kullgren / Bloomberg Law

A Montefiore spokeswoman acknowledged an email investigation from Bloomberg Law but did not respond at time of publication.

A ray of hope is possible: New York state lawmakers passed legislation this month to set higher staffing levels in nursing homes, inspired in part by nurses’ strikes in Montefiore and elsewhere in the state. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) had not signed the bill on May 18, and his office did not respond to requests for comment.

In the New York capital, a similar strike involved more than 1,500 nurses from the Albany Medical Center. The NYSNA said one of the critical points was management’s requirement that nurses reuse N95 respirators up to 20 times.

The strike did not do much, however. The union and management remain locked in a contract struggle, and management recently accused the union of joining the Communists in a May Day rally.

In a statement, hospital spokesman Matthew Markham denied accusations of staff shortages and said the union failed to respond to a contract proposal submitted by the hospital in January. The management informed the hospital staff of the emergence of the local Communist Party with the union “in a spirit of transparency and proper attribution,” he added.

Model negotiation

In Illinois, things turned out well for a group of retirement homes affiliated with the International Union of Service Employees. Workers at 70 multi-company-owned retirement homes sent strike notices to their employers in May 2020 to demand tighter safety protocols, protective gear and higher wages – a risky bet at the time, according to some.

“Everyone thought it was a really bad idea,” said Shaba Andrich, vice president of retirement homes for the health care division of SEIU Illinois, referring to his fellow labor activists. “They were like, ‘No, that’s not the right thing to do. People are going to see this as an abandonment of residents during a pandemic. … And, you know, we thought they were wrong.

Before the strike went into effect, the SEIU was able to win a contract providing $ 15 in base salary as well as additional salary increases, three months salary in the event of a pandemic, paid time off for Covid-19 and reinforced safety protections.

Nurses Theresa Austin (left) and Rosell Mahawan console each other during a candlelight vigil at a hospital in Panorama City, Calif., In April.

Photographer: Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images

Janine Schoen, vice president of policy at Alden Management Services Inc., one of the retirement home companies covered by the contract, said in an email that management followed public health guidelines “long before the threat of strike action and would continue to follow their instructions ”.

It was a significant victory for SEIU, Andrich said, and the union sought to replicate the contract in other nursing homes through a process known as model negotiation.

In November, SEIU workers at 11 Chicago-area nursing homes went on strike against Infinity Healthcare Management – pledging to pick up as long as needed to secure wage increases in the event of a pandemic. By day 12, they had an agreement.

Healthcare workers took another victory in Connecticut this week, signing on a agreement negotiated by Governor Ned Lamont (D) which raises wages to $ 20 an hour, at least $ 5 more per hour than current rates. The deal avoids a strike at 26 facilities statewide.

And in Oregon, nursing home workers, who represent 53% of all Covid-19 deaths statewide – reached agreement last month with Avamere, a major operator, to raise wages to $ 18 an hour and cut revenue through new training and other measures.

Key elements are likely to be repeated in contracts with at least three other state suppliers, said Vanessa Veselka, organizing director of SEIU Local 503.

“You had a lot of energy with the workers just saying, ‘I’m done. I finished. I’m not staying in this industry, ”Veselka said.

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