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Pennsylvania Nurses Near Their Breaking Point

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On top of the typical stresses, intense work, and long hours common to the profession, nurses working at smaller hospitals in more remote parts of the country face many unique challenges. With fewer staff and 24?–?7 services, facilities like the two Lehigh Valley Health Network hospitals in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, rely on nurses, nursing assistants, and other staff to perform many jobs simultaneously with little rest. But when nurses begin to leave for better working conditions and the hospital does not replace them, those who remain are put under even more strain, which endangers them and their patients. 

For workers with Schuylkill Hospital Nurses United, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In this episode, we talk with two Schuylkill County nurses, Brandee Brown and Chrissy Newton, and Seth Goldstein from the Office and Professional Employees International Union, about the day-to-day grind of working at small-town hospitals while also combatting union-busting and bad-faith bargaining from management at Lehigh Valley Health Network.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Pathway to Progress: The Charleston Hospital Strike

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History has long been portrayed as a series of “great men” taking great action to shape the world we live in. In recent decades, however, social historians have focused more on looking at history “from the bottom up,” studying the vital role that working people played in our heritage. Working people built, and continue to build, the United States. In our new series, Pathway to Progress, we’ll take a look at various people, places and events where working people played a key role in the progress our country has made, including those who are making history right now. Today’s topic is the Charleston hospital strike.

In the late 1960s, Charleston, South Carolina, was NOT primed to be the next city to be a touchstone in either the civil rights movement or the labor movement. Much of the progress and activism seen elsewhere had passed Charleston by. And the White power structure was as equally entrenched against labor unionism as it was against the expansion of Black people’s rights. But the hospital strike of 1969 became as important to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Poor People’s Campaign and the labor movement as the Montgomery bus boycott would be to the civil rights movement.

After dock workers were rejected in their bid for a union contract, everyone assumed Black hospital workers had absolutely no chance or successfully organizing. Workers at two hospitals, though, had other plans. One of the hospitals was run by the state and the other by the county. Management had reportedly engaged in racially biased behavior, notably preventing Black doctors from working at the hospital for many years.

Local 1199, then associated with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, had experience with organizing in hostile territory. After it organized 34,000 new members in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, it formed a national organizing committee for hospital workers. The local also reached out to the SCLC, one of the most important civil rights organizations, to coordinate on organizing efforts. Nearly 3 million hospital and nursing home employees throughout the country were without union representation, most were Black or Latinx and most were desperately poor. The SCLC launched the Poor People’s Campaign specifically to help out in such situations and so it joined with Local 1199 in forming the National Organizing Committee of Hospital and Nursing Home Employees. Coretta Scott King was named honorary chair and Ralph Abernathy and other SCLC leaders were members of the committee.

The SCLC and Local 1199 trained staff in union organizing methods that were successful in places like Memphis, Tennessee, Atlanta and St. Petersburg. The hospital workers in Charleston weren’t idle, either, as they began organizing meetings with help from the local Black community. Management was led by Dr. William McCord, president of the medical college, which ran the state hospital. After delaying meeting with organizers, McCord fired 12 of them. The reaction was immediate, when 400 workers, including nurses, nurse’s aides, kitchen helpers, laundry workers and orderlies, walked off the job. A week later, workers at the county-run hospital walked out in sympathy. The workers’ demands were clear, rehire the 12 fired workers, recognize the union, increase wages and institute grievance procedures.

McCord was contemptuous. He offered to give Black workers an additional holiday for the birthday of Robert E. Lee. McCord secured an injunction from a segregationist judge that effectively eliminated legal protests. The Black workers rejected the injunction’s validity and began picketing the hospital. Arrests immediately followed. Even worse, vigilantes began assaulting strikers, who had to establish security guards at the picket and around their union hall.

By now, SCLC and Local 1199 staff were on the ground to provide leadership and assistance. Abernathy and other prominent leaders like Andrew Young set up camp in Charleston and sought to bring national attention to the plight of the Black hospital workers. They quickly tied the hospital strike to the larger civil rights movement and connected the strike directly to Martin Luther King Jr., who had been slain in Memphis the previous year while supporting striking sanitation workers. Coretta Scott King said: “If my husband were alive today, he would be in Charleston, South Carolina.”

Charleston faced mass meetings, daily marches, evening rallies and boycotts of stores and schools that didn’t support the strike. The response included daily confrontations with police and local White citizens, and arrests were daily. The governor came out against the strike and sent state troopers and National Guardsman. Arrests were stepped up.

But the strikers didn’t back down and they weren’t intimidated. They showed up, day-after-day, regardless of what was thrown at them, which, by that point, included bayonets, tanks and National Guardsmen patrolling the city’s streets. Coretta Scott King spoke at two local churches and nearly 30% of the city’s Black population showed up. She not only championed the cause of the hospital workers, she appealed for financial assistance, as the union and SCLC were running out of money to sustain the strike. 

King’s request went national. The leaders of civil rights organizations and Black elected officials came together for the first time since Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. The appeal worked. With the help of national ads and television coverage, money began flowing in. Walter Reuther personally joined the demonstrations and donated $10,000. George Meaney and the national AFL-CIO gave another $25,000. Other unions, including White unions, joined the hospital workers on the picket lines. Abernathy was jailed, as were leaders of 1199B, the new designation for the local started by the Charleston hospital workers. 

The opposition to the strike started to fracture. Boycotts brought business activity to a standstill in the city. The business community began to fear a economic disaster and they called for a settlement. Others feared that a victory for Black hospital workers would lead to further organizing by civil rights organizations and labor unions in the city. In particular, they were afraid that union organizing would move into the textile industry, which was strong in the state. Further complicating the situation were federal contracts, with $12 million worth on the verge of being canceled if the hospital continued to discriminate against Black workers.

In this environment, the hospital administration agreed to rehire the strikers, including the original 12 fired workers. State government agreed to raise the minimum wage as well, potentially giving strikers several of their demands. With the agreement set to be finalized, Sen. Strom Thurmond stepped in and said that the federal aid would be delivered, regardless of the hospital’s actions. The hospital withdrew from the settlement and Local 1199 and the SCLC accused President Richard Nixon of “giving Senator Thurmond his political payoff for services rendered in the last election. A payoff whose real price is the suffering of Black hospital workers.”

Demonstrations started up again and they expanded to the textile companies and government buildings in the state and in Washington, D.C. More unions joined the protests and mass arrests continued. Attempts to solve the problem from the nation’s capitol were stalled by the Nixon administration until Secretary of Labor George Schultz took action. He sent a mediator to South Carolina and demanded that the strike be settled.

After 100 days, the strike was settled in favor of the Black hospital workers. They won wage increases of 30-70 cents an hour, the establishment of a credit union, a grievance procedure that allowed the union to represent employees and all fired and striking workers were reinstated. They didn’t win union recognition, but the wins they achieved addressed most of the problems the union would’ve taken on anyway.

At a victory rally at Zion Olivet Church, the Rev. Andrew Young summarized why the strike was successful: “We won this strike because of a wonderful marriage—the marriage of the SCLC and Local 1199. The first of many beautiful children of this marriage is Local 1199B here in Charleston, and there are going to be as many more children like 1199B as there are letters in the alphabet.”

The combined efforts didn’t stop in Charleston. The tactics used in South Carolina were quickly exported elsewhere. Within months, they had also secured collective bargaining rights for 1,500 mostly Black workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Within a year, the Baltimore local had added 6,000 more hospital and nursing home workers. In December, the National Union of Hospital and Nursing Home Employees was established with Coretta Scott King as honorary chairperson. While reflecting upon the success in Charleston, King said that right before his death, her husband had concluded that “the key to battling poverty is winning jobs for workers with decent pay through unionism.” Charleston was one of the first moments that proved King right.

Source: “Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1981” by Philip S. Foner, 1974.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on February 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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Hospital Workers Fight Job Cuts at Duluth’s Biggest Employer

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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.


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California Hospital Workers Strike, Fracturing Pandemic’s Uneasy Labor Peace

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Despite nationwide shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and working conditions that have often been life-threatening, there have not been major strikes of hospital workers in America since the coronavirus pandemic struck. Until now.

More than 700 employees of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, a regional trauma center in California’s Sonoma County, held a five-day strike that concluded on Friday. Foremost among the motivating issues were cuts in health care and paid sick leave that the hospital, owned by Providence St. Joseph Health, was pushing on employees during a contentious contract bargaining campaign. The employees are members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

“The biggest reason is because we’ve been out of contract for over a year, and the hospital is trying to force us into a pretty bad contract,” said Steven Batson, an anesthesia tech and 10-year veteran of the hospital, speaking from the picket line last week, where he was joined by hundreds of his coworkers. The company wants to significantly increase health care premiums, Batson said, and to take paid time off away from senior workers and shift it to newer workers as a recruitment tool. Batson, a shop steward, said the contentious bargaining over this contract is “absolutely” the worst he has experienced in his ten years.

Chuck Desepte, an X-ray technician who has been at Santa Rosa for 13 years, agreed. “It’s the takeaways that I’m not accepting,” he said. “They can afford this. We don’t want to go backwards. We’ve been here for this community over and over again.”

In May, the New York Times reported that Providence Health, which received a bailout of more than $500 million from the federal government in the CARES Act, has a $12 billion cash pile and sizable investments in hedge funds and venture capital. “Last year, Providence’s portfolio of investments generated about $1.3 billion in profits, far exceeding the profits from its hospital operations,” the Times wrote.

Though the strike was not directly caused by the fallout of the coronavirus, the pandemic is playing an unavoidable role. Batson said that although the union held a strike authorization vote in February that passed overwhelmingly, it held off on taking action once the pandemic hit. He said that the hospital was slow to require universal masking, and that to this day, housekeeping staff and outpatient lab technicians who do coronavirus testing are not given adequate PPE, like N95 masks. “The hospital has definitely used this pandemic as a weapon against us,” he said, including by trying to portray the workers as irresponsible for going on strike.

In a statement on the first day of the strike, the hospital wrote that “we are deeply disappointed that NUHW has decided to hold a five-day strike given that the number of COVID-19 cases is on the rise in Sonoma County and the potential for a significant increase in hospitalizations remains.” The company also hastened to paint employees as selfishly exploiting current events. “The union has made clear in communications to our caregivers that this is not a strike about personal protective equipment (PPE) or workplace safety. Instead, this is an ordinary dispute over the terms of our labor contract,” the hospital wrote. “It is unfortunate and unfounded that the union is using COVID-19 as a platform for its negotiating tactics. We never deny a caregiver PPE.”

The company itself is playing hardball. It tried to dissuade the strike with preemptive economic threats, posting ominous fliers warning that, “If NUHW submits a strike notice, our current wage offer of an annual 3% increase will be lowered to 2%, to account for the significant expense of a disruptive strike, and the current offer will be pulled off the table.” (Time will tell whether that threat stands as negotiations continue.) As soon as the strike was called, the company stopped deducting union dues from workers’ paychecks, a move that serves to annoy and hassle the union, making it much more time-intensive to collect dues. Contracted replacement workers from an outside agency were brought in for the five-day duration of the strike.

Though every labor action is unique, the fact that NUHW was willing to go through with the strike in the face of the inevitable attacks about responsibility during the pandemic could signal that the fragile labor peace that has mostly reigned in the healthcare sector—an industry afflicted with more than its share of dissatisfied and endangered union workers—may be buckling. Unions that have been cautious about going on strike over contract issues during this crisis will sooner or later be forced to decide whether they will allow employers (who may have multi-billion-dollar investment portfolios) to make them swallow concessions they would not have otherwise accepted. The employees at Santa Rosa, who worked through major wildfires in their area in 2017 and 2019 before facing the Covid outbreak this year, will soon find out if their bold action pays off.

It was not an easy decision. “We’re health care workers,” said Desepte. “We want to take care of people.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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How Budget Cuts and Privatization Endanger Workers in Psychiatric Hospitals

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kari-lydersenStephanie Moulton reportedly loved her job as a social worker serving mentally disturbed people living in group homes under the care of the state—many of them having ended up there as a result of criminal charges.

Moulton was brutally killed by one of the schizophrenic men in her care, Deshawn James Chappell, while the 100-pound woman was, as usual, working alone at the group home. Other residents had left for programs and she was taking Chappell to an appointment when he stabbed her to death, dumped her body and fled to his grandmother’s house. His distraught mother told The New York Times she had been telling officials at two different homes for some time that her son was off his medication and becoming increasingly erratic and violent. Working alone, Moulton was not physically equipped for the challenge.

Meanwhile, workers at juvenile detention centers in a number of states are complaining of being regularly attacked by their young charges, and discouraged from reporting the incidents by higher-ups, as reported by the Associated Press last week.

Both situations are examples of how government budget cuts and privatization of social services over the years—becoming even more critical in current times—put both government workers and people under the government’s care at serious risk.

The New York Times story relates Moulton’s murder to the larger trends of de-institutionalization of the mentally ill and also the privatization of group homes that pick up much of the slack for greatly decreased numbers of beds for the mentally ill in medical facilities.

Psychiatric_01-250x196
Working conditions in state-run mental institutions have become more dangerous because of state budget cuts and privatization, say workers.

De-institutionalization, on the one hand, was seen as a just way to grant more freedom and autonomy to people with mental issues who did not necessarily need to live in institutional, often repressive settings. But it was also a major way for state and federal government agencies to cut costs, and many said the civil rights aspect was largely cover for cost-cutting that leaves legitimate needs for institutional settings unmet.

Chappell‘s mother said it was not until he faced criminal charges that her son was able to get into government care, even at one of the relatively open group homes where he was allowed to go off his medication and ultimately killed Moulton.

Even after de-institutionalization, group homes have increasingly been privatized, meaning less oversight of their staffing levels or other practices and more incentive for the companies to cut corners to make a profit. Moulton was transferred to the home where she was killed after she was threatened by a hostile resident at another home.

As employees of individual private companies, workers at these facilities would likely find it very difficult to unionize; whereas if the government were running the group homes, workers would at least likely be represented by a relatively powerful public employees union.

Workers at juvenile detention facilities are largely represented by unions, which are speaking out about the physical risks faced by staffers. The AP quotes Jason Prevatt, who suffered a concussion, broken nose and black eyes when attacked by youth at a Massachusetts facility last year:

When I come through the door, I just feel like I have no rights … It’s very unsafe and it’s basically enter at your own risk.

Juvenile detention workers said they are understaffed and are strongly discouraged from reporting or especially pressing charges regarding assaults by youth detainees. One administration official was quoted saying prosecuting youth would be contrary to the idea of working for their rehabilitation.

But workers note that allowing detainees to act up with few consequences makes things unsafe for staff and other detainees. The AP reported:

In Maryland, a 13-year-old boy at a juvenile detention center was charged last year in the death of a 65-year-old teacher, who was beaten, sexually assaulted and choked. An investigation found that the slaying was the result of “multiple systemic security failures,” including outdated buildings and a shortage of security cameras and radios for staff.

In Massachusetts, there were 182 assaults on staff by youths during the 9-month period ending in February, according to figures provided by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, which represents more than 45,000 employees in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Of course, reports of abuses and neglect by staff at group homes and juvenile detention facilities nationwide are also common. For example, in Chicago several years ago, youth at a temporary detention facility alleged they were forced to eat rotten food and go without clean underwear for weeks.

The root causes of abuses and harm suffered by both residents and staff in such government-run facilities are likely the same—slashed budgets, lack of oversight, privatization and general lack of respect for both people in government detention or care, and those who work with them.

This blog originally appeared in These Working Times on June 23, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.


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