Nurses in Massachusetts Are Striking for Their Patients
Nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts, have been on strike for 12 weeks — and now the company is threatening to permanently replace them. We spoke with the head of the Massachusetts Nurses Association about their struggle and the need for democratic, fighting unions.
- Interview by
- Alexandra Bruns-Smith
- Matthew Erlich
Nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts have been on strike since March 8, demanding safe staffing for patients. Represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), the seven hundred striking nurses are engaged in what has become one of the longest nurses’ strikes in Massachusetts in decades.
The hospital’s owner is Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare Corporation, which furloughed workers amid the pandemic despite taking billions from the federal government under the CARES Act. Tenet has spent millions of dollars on the strike, including hiring replacement nurses and paying the Worcester Police Department to patrol the picket line. Further raising the stakes, Tenet recently threatened to permanently replace the striking nurses.
Boston Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members Alexandra Bruns-Smith and Matthew Erlich recently spoke with ICU nurse and MNA president Katie Murphy about the Saint Vincent strike, the horrors of for-profit health care, and democratic socialism. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s week [twelve] — the nurses have gone [twelve] weeks without a paycheck. I’ve been on the picket line almost every day, and I talk to nurses from all over the hospital. The nurses are incredibly dedicated to not only Saint Vincent but to the community of Worcester. They all tell the same story of unsafe conditions inside the building, from the ICU to the OR to the oncology floors to the cardiac floors to labor and delivery.
They’ve stayed strong. They’re supporting one another. They’re absolutely as committed [to the needs of their patients] as they were on day one when they walked out. That’s been inspiring.
Saint Vincent first went on strike twenty-one years ago, and the biggest issue at that time was mandatory overtime — the way Saint Vincent was staffing their hospital was unsafe for patients and unsafe for nurses. [When we settled, it was] the first contract in the country that had language about mandatory overtime. [Now it is] the model for contracts in Massachusetts and around the nation, and in Massachusetts, it’s against the law to staff your hospital using mandatory overtime.
In 2018, we took safe staffing to the ballot in Massachusetts because legislators showed no interest in making it law. At that time, hospitals were saying [safe staffing] should be settled at the bargaining table. So, in 2019, Saint Vincent nurses brought [safe staffing] to the bargaining table. And Tenet had no interest in discussing this.
We have to have the resources so that you’re safe having a baby or being treated for a heart attack. If a nurse has too many patients, and somebody is running into trouble in room one, and you’re going into room four, it’s no exaggeration to say patients will die.
Tenet has just refused to address this issue of staffing. [The nurses] want to get back in, but we have to go in safely.
Can you tell us more about MNA?
We are the biggest nurses’ union in Massachusetts and the third-largest in the country. We have about 23,000 members, and not just nurses: we have health care workers, occupational therapists, all of MedFlight [ambulance services].
We try to support other unions as much as we can: walk others’ picket lines, fight in the statehouse to support their bills. I might not be stocking shelves, and they may not be turning a patient in a bed, but it’s the same goal.
When I took over this job as president, I set a goal for myself: empower our members. So that if a member was on a picket line, and a cop was saying, “You can’t do that,” he or she would be able to say, “In fact, I can.” Or if we’re at the hospital, and an administrator is saying, “I’m not going to send you an extra nurse, but you’re going to take this patient anyway,” that nurse would say, “Well, then, I’m not taking that patient. That patient will have to sit in the emergency room.”
It’s been tough during COVID. The strongest way to do this is one-on-one conversations. It’s nice that we can all sit in Zoom meetings, but it’s just not the same. We used to literally walk through a hospital and say, “What’s going on?” And some people would say, “What’s the union done for me?” You could sit there and have a conversation, and we could talk about it, and we could listen to concerns. It’s really all about making those connections.
It seems like Tenet has been spending a lot of money on this strike, and they’ve recently threatened to hire permanent replacement workers. What do you think the strike is about for them?
It’s about power. Look at how much money they’ve spent. When I’m there, there must be at least twelve to fifteen police officers, and they’re paying the scabs. They could easily fund what we’re talking about, because it’s maybe one more nurse on that shift that day.
The threat to replace nurses is a scare tactic. They could not fill the empty positions before the strike. This action has solidified the nurses’ belief that this company is not trying to find a solution, and we are even stronger.
Tenet is a for-profit company, and their responsibility is to their shareholders, not to their patients. I think they’ve made that abundantly clear. But all of us feel that it’s antithetical to what gets us in the door every day, so we have to fight this fight.
We’ve heard stories about nurses and picketers being harassed by the Worcester Police Department on the picket line. The city of Worcester confirms Tenet is paying more than $30,000 a day to the police department for overtime security. What do you make of this relationship between the Worcester PD and Tenet?
It’s private corporations using the state. If they’re just there to be public safety, then that’s one thing. But if they’re going to be an extension of Tenet, that’s a completely different story.
I’m in favor of completely demilitarizing the police. The weapons in their hands and the complete lack of training in emergency situations — [we see the result] on the front pages every single day. It’s dangerous for all of us.
How did COVID factor into the decision to strike?
All of a sudden, we were inundated with incredibly sick patients, and we didn’t have enough nurses. At Saint Vincent, the nurses themselves organized the recovery room into an intensive care unit so all the COVID patients who needed critical care nursing could go to the ICU. We were all stretched thin. I was in a COVID ICU on the night shift for thirteen months. It was painful watching the suffering.
Some hospitals were redeploying nurses, moving them from procedural areas into the ICU. Tenet bullied these nurses into being furloughed rather than going to the places where they were needed. The nurses there couldn’t believe that they were being forced to work shorthanded.
Under Massachusetts law, you can’t have more than two ICU patients at a time. [However, when] the governor declared an emergency, that law was suspended. Some hospitals were like, “Great, let the nurses take care of three patients and four patients.” That absolutely puts patients in danger.
During that time, Tenet also took money from the CARES Act, which is unconscionable. [The] nurses learning that said, “This is not a corporation that has the patient’s best interests at heart.”
Profit has no place in health care. The “nonprofits” are not much better. They still are raking in millions of dollars, and their top management is getting millions of dollars. [Then they] say, “We can’t afford another nurse, we can’t give you an aide this weekend, and there’s not going to be a secretary today.”
MNA has been an outspoken supporter of Medicare for All. Where does that support come from?
We’re supporting Representative [Pramila] Jayapal’s bill, which provides cradle-to-grave preventative care. If I have my card, then I can go to the local clinic, get my blood pressure medicine, make sure I have insulin, make sure I know what my nutritional guidelines are. We feel that, for our patients, [Medicare for All] is huge.
For our members, many of us stay in jobs because of the benefits that we’re getting. I’ve certainly had colleagues who, when they had another child and had to drop down to fewer hours, their health insurance premium tripled. You can’t afford to stay home and take care of your kids. This for-profit health system is just so tough on so many people.
Joe Biden’s infrastructure bills currently include $400 billion for community-based health and elder care. Critics are arguing that care work doesn’t fall under this broader umbrella of infrastructure. What are your thoughts about that criticism?
I try not to listen to Mitch McConnell. Of course it’s infrastructure. So many people have to quit their jobs because they’re caring for elderly relatives. We can’t have a vibrant economy if we don’t have robust, high-quality elder care and childcare.
I include myself in that. If it frees me up to go to work, and then it gives a job to somebody else who can stay home with my family member, I don’t see that anybody is losing.
Right now, MNA nurses in Cambridge, Somerville, and Everett are also rallying for safer working conditions and better pay. But there’s a difference, because Cambridge Health Alliance is a public hospital network, and thus the nurses are considered public-sector workers, making it illegal for them to strike in Massachusetts.
It’s crazy. I was on a couple of those picket lines, and the stories are exactly the same [as Saint Vincent]. All they’re doing is trying to get safer work conditions for themselves and for their patients.
I think that they should have the right to strike. Withholding our labor sometimes is the best tool that we have.
As a fellow DSA member, I wanted to ask what being a democratic socialist means to you?
I believe that when [we’re] all comfortable, well fed and healthy, well educated, we all benefit. I think [policies] such as Medicare for All and free college are win-win. The only people who lose are the multibillionaires.
When, instead of having empty lots, we have a park with a community garden in it; or when we have well-paid teachers and universal pre-K starting whenever you need it so parents can go to work; it creates a safer society, a more mentally healthy society, a physically healthy society — and we all thrive.
What are the things that socialist organizations like DSA can do to support the nursing union and build relationships with labor?
I think doing a lot of what they are now: showing up. That’s a huge part of it. Showing up on picket lines; working on elections; maybe even running for office.
What I’m seeing is that the unions know the activist organizations exist, but I think we could strengthen those relationships. When we’re all working for a common goal, that’s when we all tend to meet each other and talk to one another and form those connections.
We don’t have deep pockets, but what we have is people. And working together, building those coalitions where we are all speaking with one voice — on, let’s say, funding an unemployment system that would allow groups to feel like they could go on strike because they had the wherewithal to stay out — might be the way.
That’s a lot of work to do. But [we need] that kind of militancy, because we’re saying, “You’ve got to be strong enough to take a risk.”
What should people know about the nurses’ strike at Saint Vincent?