Our health care employer announced hundreds of unnecessary layoffs this spring. Outraged at its poorly disguised greed, we didn’t just rely on negotiations. Instead, the members of our union voted unanimously to take the fight to the streets and into the community. We spent the summer fighting back—including holding our local’s first-ever pickets.
Essentia Health is far and away the largest employer in Duluth, Minnesota. Its sprawling main campus is a neighborhood unto itself, and its clinics and other facilities spread out across the region into almost every community of more than a few thousand people. Its very well-paid CEO and other top executives have overseen year after year of dramatic expansion; now they’re building a new state-of-the-art $900 million hospital. Business has certainly been good for Essentia Health.
But much of Essentia’s growth has come at the expense of its workers. For years we have been made to take on more and more work, while vacancies are left unfilled. This is sadly a common trend throughout health care. The COVID-19 pandemic has only thrown more fuel on the fire.
SMOKE AND SPIN
This spring, despite receiving $112 million from the government, Essentia announced its intentions to permanently eliminate 900 jobs. Its PR statements talked about how this was necessary because of the hard times that the pandemic was causing the company, and said that even the top executives and physicians would be taking pay cuts.
But it was all smoke and spin. The reality is that Essentia wasn’t even in the red; in fact, it took in more revenue this year than last year. At the same time as the chain was eliminating jobs, it was spending tens of millions of dollars to buy out a hospital in Moose Lake, Minnesota, and continuing full speed ahead with the construction of a new hospital in Duluth.
The top brass of Essentia cut their salaries—but we’re skeptical how long that will last. In the meantime, we’re sure they won’t have trouble getting by after receiving exorbitant sums like the $1.5 million in compensation paid to CEO David Herman in 2019.
FIRST PICKET EVER
United Steelworkers Local 9460 is the largest union at Essentia. Members voted unanimously to launch a fightback campaign across the chain across our 11 units in the chain.
Our campaign kicked off on June 1, with a car caravan protest and informational picket at Essentia’s main campus in Duluth. Several dozen cars and trucks filled with union members and supporters waved their way through Duluth’s streets and drove around the Essentia Health campus for hours, honking the whole time. At the same time dozens of workers held signs and gave our leaflets at all of the intersections around their campus.
The response from the community was overwhelming. Numerous motorists spontaneously joined the caravan, and almost every pedestrian we encountered indicated support—some even joined the informational picket. A number of other unions participated, including the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Minnesota Nurses Association, and the Service Employees (SEIU), as well as miners from the nearby Iron Range who are also part of the Steelworkers. The impressive pickets and union solidarity that had been built around MNA’s 2019 contract fight at Essentia helped lay the groundwork for our campaign.
This was the first picket of our own that Local 9460 had ever organized in our 20-year history, and it created a buzz in the community, the local labor movement, and the media. Next we mounted an aggressive information campaign, distributing hundreds of “No Layoffs at Essentia!” yard signs and posters throughout the communities where Essentia Health has facilities, and putting up billboards in Duluth, Ashland, Hayward, Spooner, and the Iron Range. The message of the billboards was “Essentia Health: Putting Wealth Before Health Like Nowhere Else”—a pointed mocking of Essentia’s official advertising slogan, which is “Like Nowhere Else!”
The yard signs, posters, and billboards generated a new wave of media coverage—and legal threats from Essentia. But the union refused to back down, and in the end the billboards stayed up and were seen by hundreds of thousands.
‘BRING OUR JOBS BACK!’
As the summer went on, we held more actions, including an informational picket in downtown Spooner, Wisconsin, where our members work at an Essentia outpatient clinic. We promoted the pickets with full-page ads in the local newspapers and a series of guest editorials.
In the face of this resistance, Essentia unfortunately did forge ahead with its layoffs. They started with non-union workers and managers, before moving on to the different worksites where Local 9460 represents almost 2,000 Essentia workers.
By the time the layoffs ended this fall, our union had lost about 300 members. This was considerably less than had been expected, but it still represented a huge loss. The cuts ranged from clinical assistants to janitors. Few job categories were spared.
Essentia, of course, will never admit that the fightback campaign reduced the number of union members laid off, but we are confident that it did. And we’re even more confident that it will cause the company to think twice from here on out, now that management has seen that our union can and will fight back.
The battle is far from over. We still have members without jobs, and those who are working are doing so woefully short-staffed. Local 9460 is preparing to enter contract negotiations with Essentia, and to launch a new community campaign around the theme, “Bring Our Jobs Back!” The struggle continues.
This article originally appeared at Labor Notes on September 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Adam Ritscher is vice president of United Steelworkers Local 9460.