Nurses went on a two-day strike last week. What were the issues that led to it?
Our union represents 1,800 nurses at the second-largest employer in Vermont, which is also the largest private employer. We’re the only Level I trauma center in northern Vermont. We have very high patient volume, a high level of acuity and very complex patients.
Our hospital pays the lowest salaries in the region, and Vermont is notorious for being one of the worst-paying states for nurses. When you factor in cost of living, nurses in Vermont rank 47th in the country for pay, and nurse practitioners, which is what I am, are ranked last. Low pay means it’s very hard to attract and hold on to nurses. At any given time we’ll have 130 to 180 open positions.
Three years ago, when we had our last contract negotiation, our CEO made a $2.3 million salary. They haven’t released the numbers since then, of course. And this is a nonprofit, right? A nonprofit that spent $8 million rebranding itself, while we are the lowest-paid nurses in the state. What does it mean for a hospital to make enough profits to pay people that sort of obscene salary at the expense of other people’s health?
When we started looking at our contract issues about six months ago, we identified the key issues that people were facing—burnout, understaffing and nurses feeling completely overwhelmed. We crafted our proposals to change that. We proposed having smarter ways of staffing so that patients’ needs were addressed. We looked at what wages would be competitive enough to attract and hold on to nurses.
From the very beginning, the hospital has barely budged on its incredibly stingy wage proposals. They came out offering a 1% raise the first year of the contract, 1% the second year and 0% the third year. They finally went up to 3%, 3% and 1%. We are proposing 10%, 4% and 4%. And we’ve determined that that really is the very lowest we can go if we’re serious about attracting and holding on to nurses. So it’s shaped up to be a fight where neither side is willing or able to budge.
We’ve gone out of our way to talk with the community and our patients and to tell them that we need their support. When we tell them poor staffing affects our ability to take care of them, people really get that—even though the hospital is doing its utmost to a paint us and our big wage proposal as greedy and unrealistic and irrational.
What are the working conditions like for nurses in your hospital?
The picture is essentially one of nurses working their own jobs and often the jobs of many other people whose positions have been unfilled.
We have a nurse who works in a general medical surgical unit. He started a year ago and says that since then, 60% of the nurses who were hired have left. That gives you a sense of the wages.
The biggest problem I face as a nurse practitioner is that there’s absolutely no time built in for patient calls, responding to patients’ emails, getting back to patients about their results. And we’ve had a position that was not filled for several months. We have a physician who’s leaving. So I’m routinely seeing more patients than I can really manage, and I don’t have time to get back to them.
I have a colleague who works in an office where they have a position that’s sat open for two years, so she’s been working 50-, 60-hour weeks and also can’t ever get back to patients in a timely fashion about their results.
So it just leaves us feeling incredibly nervous that patients are going to die or that something really bad will happen. It also means that when I go home at night, I eat dinner, and then I work trying to catch up on everything until I go to bed. I wake up in the morning, and I do the same thing before I go to work. I work through my lunch hour. I work on weekends, just trying to manage that load.
We’ve heard from other nurses that because the ancillary staff is also not paid a living wage, they can’t keep them on hand. So we have nurses who spend at least an hour a day on their shifts doing laundry, which pulls them away from the bedside. They’re also doing billing and coding. These are not things that nurses are meant to do. That’s been a big part of our fight: defining what’s a nursing function and what’s not and telling the hospital, “You have to staff up, or patient care suffers.”
We also demanded that all staff in the hospital who are not making $15 an hour would get that as a minimum. The hospital actually agreed to that last week.
Imagine you’re cleaning a room because there’s nobody there to clean it, and you have a patient who has fallen in another room, and there’s nobody who can get to that patient. Or you have a patient who has dementia and is pulling out their intravenous lines and there’s nobody who can respond. It makes you incredibly anxious. There are nurses who will run into a room after being pulled elsewhere and see a patient sitting in a pool of blood because they have pulled out their lines and there’s nobody there to help. Every day feels like it’s just a matter of time until something serious happens, whether that’s a patient death or patient injury.
How did you all prepare for the two-day strike?
We pulled together a core of people who were involved in contract negotiations three years ago. We said, What did we do right last time? And what did we do wrong? And we recognized that we didn’t prepare in any meaningful way for a strike last time. The threat of a strike is meaningless if you haven’t done that kind of homework. So we said, What do we need to do to be rock solid months in advance, if we need to go on strike?
We formed member action teams: one person in every unit of the hospital agrees to be responsible for talking to 10 other people, not just about their own conditions, but also about what they think about various contract proposals, whether they’re going to be on the picket line, whether they’re going to come to the protest that we’ve organized, etc. We have a really solid communication network throughout the hospital and the clinics.
We organized a bargaining team of 35 elected delegates. The bargaining team started meeting regularly and coming up with proposals based on the research we did about what other hospitals have done to create safer staffing and what kinds of wages are actually holding on to nurses.
We also said we didn’t do a good job of communicating our issues to the public last time. How do we craft a really solid external campaign? Early on, at least two months before we started bargaining, we started sending nurses to different unions and community groups to talk about our issues and to see if they would pledge to organize solidarity for us. That’s already starting to pay off. We came up with the right kind of messaging for how we wanted to talk about this with the community.
We’ve had very solid internal orientation coupled with a very solid external orientation. We’re always thinking about how our issues affect the community, and how we can help them understand that our fight is their fight.
What has Bernie Sanders’ position been through all of this?
Bernie is a rock star in Vermont. There’s that mystique around Bernie, and whenever you’re involved in any kind of social justice or labor issue in Vermont, you assume Bernie will be there. And, of course, he rarely is.
When we organized our first rally two months ago, we contacted his office, and they said he would try to be there but couldn’t really commit to attending. So a bunch of people on the bargaining team took it upon themselves to start calling his office every day. At the last minute—literally the last minute—we’re about to wrap up a rally, and the sea parts, and Bernie comes through and pledges his support.
At that time, he didn’t say anything about the nurses. He talked about health care as a human right. And how nurses are the backbone of the hospitals. It was very general. It was fine, but it could have been a speech anywhere at any time.
Since then, nurses have continued to contact his office for support. Eventually, Bernie finally sat down with a group of our nurses and then organized a press conference and spoke to our issues. Then every news outlet in the area picked up the story.
As an activist, as a socialist, do I think that just voting for Bernie is the way to try to change the world and get a better deal for working people? No. But I also recognize that he represents a fight of rich versus poor to many people. And so getting his support in a really visible way helps create more pressure on our bosses so that what we’re doing matters that much more.
I think people now have a better sense that there’s a dynamic, that there are politicians, and we have to push on them if we really want to get anything from them. It’s not automatic, even with Bernie. The organizing we do internally among ourselves as workers is actually where you build power.
Tell us about the rallies and actions that you have had. Who comes, and how are they organized?
We held a public march and rally a month before our last negotiations were scheduled. We marched from the hospital down to a construction site that’s going to be the hospital administrators’ new offices. They’re spending $4 million to move them to those offices, and then they’re going to spend an extra $1 million every year just buying parking passes for people down there. And it’s because the hospital has a sweetheart deal with our mayor, who’s trying to use our employer as an anchor tenant in a new big mall complex.
The second big public thing we did was on our last scheduled day of negotiations. The bargaining team was sitting down in a stuffy auditorium with about 300 people, because our negotiating sessions are open—we often have 200 to 300 people at them. Because of a no-strike and no-picket clause (which is bogus), nurses had to walk to the negotiation in silence. Then we opened the door to the auditorium and started chanting, “Safe staffing saves lives!” All the bosses sitting at the table were furious. They started packing their stuff up.
They didn’t even say that we were done. They just scurried away, and they were trying to figure out how to leave the room without having to walk through all of us. It turned into this huge rally where people were speaking out and chanting.
The third thing we did was a town hall-style meeting where we had three different nurses speak about our conditions at work. Then we had solidarity greetings from about a dozen community organizations.
We’ve had a wave of teachers’ strikes. Has that had an impact on emboldening the nurses to go on strike?
There are two of us in the union leadership who talked routinely about the teachers’ strikes, while they were happening and also afterward. My coworkers didn’t necessarily come in saying, “Hey, those teachers, we should do what they did.” But people totally get it if I say, “People fought back, and they struck, and they won, and those were illegal strikes, and they not only won for themselves, they actually won raises for other workers not in their union.” I compare it to what we’re trying to do with our union. I’ll post a story about that on Facebook, and before you know it, 50 people from the union have shared it, and it comes back to me from people I don’t even know in the union.
There’s clearly an audience for it, and it connects with people. So even if people don’t necessarily themselves follow intimately the details of the teachers’ strikes, they’re aware of them, and it helps. It has created the kind of political space where you can argue for that kind of a fight and a significant number people get it.
How did the hospital prepare for the strike?
Hospitals, especially private ones, usually hire scabs ahead of strikes. So they’ve publicly tried to recruit 550 replacement nurses for the 1,800 people who are going to be out. They’re banking on more people coming in. So I’m hoping they’ll be really disappointed about that. They’re going to be paying the scabs $65 an hour. Of course, they’re also paying for transportation, for training ahead of time, for hotels. We’ve even learned that they’re putting them up in one of the fanciest hotels in Vermont, which is $300 a night. Not all the scabs. I think they’re just trying to fit them in wherever they can, but that’s one of the places they’ll be staying.
How was the experience of the strike?
The strike was quite successful: 95% of our membership participated, which was well above what we had expected. The picket lines were confident and well attended, even during the overnight shift. We received overwhelming support from the community, expressed through endless honking from motorists as they drove by, the provision of huge quantities of food and drinks to picketers, attendance at our rallies, and #nationalredformed postings from around the country, where people posted pictures of their coworkers dressed in red to demonstrate solidarity with our strike.
Our march into downtown Burlington toward the end of the 2-day strike was massive. When we chanted “Get Up, Get Down, Burlington’s a Union Town” to applause from onlookers, it really felt true!
As it turned out, the hospital did not lock anyone out once the strike was over, and we’re hearing from lots of nurses that they’re so glad to be back at the bedside and in the clinics, caring for their patients.
Our confidence to continue fighting for safe staffing and livable wages was really bolstered by this strike. We’ve begun to plan a whole host of additional pressure tactics, including further strikes if needed. We really feel like we are sticking with this until we win.
What did you learn through this experience?
The most important lesson is to never underestimate people. Somebody can seem like your average Joe on the surface, but scratch the surface a little and they are radical, ready to fight. Not always, but under the right conditions, they will be willing to put themselves out there for themselves and for everybody around them.