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Buffalo Healthcare Workers Strike for Better Patient Care and Fair Wages

Left Voice visited the picket line at Mercy Hospital near Buffalo, New York. Nurses and other hospital workers have been on strike for three weeks, calling for safe staffing ratios and better pay.

Mike Pappas

October 23, 2021
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Healthcare workers at the picket line at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York.

More than 2,000 healthcare workers — including nurses, technicians, clerical workers, and custodians — at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York have been on strike since October 1. Similar to other healthcare workers around the country, the striking workers’ main demand is improved staffing ratios to allow for safer care for patients. In addition, workers are fighting for better wages to attract more qualified staff, to prevent their health insurance plan from being converted to a high deductible plan, and to prevent their pension plans being converted to a 401(k).

Mercy Hospital is owned by Catholic Health System (CHS), which also owns other hospitals in the area. The striking workers at Mercy Hospital are part of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union and were originally supposed to strike with two other hospitals, the Sisters of Charity Hospital and Kenmore Mercy Hospital. However, as reported by Labor Notes, “recognizing the potential strength of bargaining together against the chain, Locals 1133 and 1168 sought to coordinate the expiration dates of their contracts and force a master agreement in the last round of negotiations in 2019.” CHS tried to push back against this tactic, and a no-strike clause was eventually agreed to for two out of three of the hospitals, leaving Mercy Hospital as the one location able to strike on behalf of all three. 

Although negotiations were supposed to begin in the middle of last year, healthcare workers agreed to delay bargaining during Covid-19 as the hospital claimed to be struggling financially — despite the CEO’s $2 million per year salary. The union healthcare workers agreed to continue working and accepted a temporary contract extension with a raise of just half a percent for the year. But despite these sacrifices, the hospital continues to refuse to give healthcare workers what they need. Hospital management’s proposals do not go nearly far enough: they proposed to add 250 new positions, similar to a proposal made back in 2016, which did nothing to resolve staffing crises. 

Management Lies

It is clear that CHS management is trying to frame the ongoing lack of a contract as the fault of the workers and the union itself. In a recent interview with local press, CHS CEO Mark Sullivan stated he was optimistic a deal would be reached, but “only CWA can end the strike.” Nurses Left Voice spoke with say that when they initially announced the plan to strike, the hospital tried to frame it as workers abandoning patients, putting press releases out to the community. 

But healthcare workers know how hypocritical this rhetoric is, and they know they care about their patients more than anyone. Workers put their lives on line throughout the pandemic — the striking healthcare workers created Covid-19 Memorial Walls around each of the picket areas commemorating both those who became ill and those who lost their lives during the pandemic’s peaks — and were called “heroes” when the label could be used as propaganda by management. Workers were even given “healthcare heroes” shirts from CHS, but now, they say they’re seen as “zeroes” and are told they are “abandoning” patients. These claims of abandoning patients are especially ironic because, as one nurse pointed out, not only are these striking healthcare workers the ones who actually care about patient well-being — hence their resistance to the continual drive to cut staffing and costs to increase profits — but the hospital’s CEO, Mark Sullivan, who makes between $1.5-2 million a year, was planning on abandoning contract negotiations midway for vacation to Europe.

It appears the hospital’s rhetoric backfired, as there has been an outpouring of community support, with many residents of the neighborhoods around the hospital putting union signs in their front lawns. Healthcare workers from the two other hospitals not currently striking have been working in solidarity, raising money at Buffalo Bills games and other community events for the union strike fund. Healthcare workers want to get back to work, but they refuse to accept horrible working conditions that lead to poor patient outcomes. Contrary to CHS’s claims, healthcare workers actually care so much about patients that they are willing to strike to see their demands met. They refuse to let the hospital force them into a poor contract that will ultimately threaten the health of patients.

Photo: Luigi Morris

The Hospital System’s Response: Scabs and Security Firms

Those who run hospital firms like CHS know what the threat of striking and winning demands could mean for other hospital systems in the area or the country, so instead of simply meeting the healthcare workers’ demands, they continue to resist. CHS has hired the global parasitic, blood-sucking, anti-strike firm Huffmaster to not just provide scabs, but also provide security. Per their website, “Huffmaster is a master staffing agency for healthcare, security, and other industries. Specializing in rapid strike staffing, we keep business in business.” Huffmaster advertises for job fulfillment and provides housing, travel, and meals for scabs in order to break strikes. As WNYLaborToday.com reported, CHS is paying Huffmaster to pay these scabs between $100 and $150 an hour, plus $45 per day for their meals, but they are not willing to pay their regular unionized employees anywhere near as much. Even the pay for the X-ray technicians, one of the higher-paid positions among the striking workers, only reaches $80 per hour — far less than the scabs are being paid. 

In their effort to claim the title for one of the worst companies in the world, not only does Huffmaster provide scab healthcare workers, but also violent security personnel. Healthcare workers at Mercy Hospital showed Left Voice reporters video footage and photos of how the security personnel at Mercy are the same security that were hired to help break the Nabisco strike and brutally attacked workers. Now there is an injunction from New York State Attorney General Letitia James claiming the company is not licensed to do work in New York State, but as of October 21, Left Voice observed Huffmaster security personnel still on the hospital property, protecting scabs and using fake badges to hide their company logo. In addition to the hired security, Buffalo police were also present and coordinated with the drivers of the scab vehicles. 

CHS CEO Trying to Deflect: CEOs Gonna CEO

In the early days of the strike, CEO Mark Sullivan said healthcare staffing is a struggle across the nation, not just at Catholic Health: “One in five healthcare workers, since the pandemic has started, has left healthcare. This is not a Mercy Hospital staffing crisis, this is not a Catholic Health staffing crisis, this is a national staffing crisis. Healthcare, overall, is broken.” And he’s right: Healthcare is “broken,” but not because of the workers. Rather, healthcare is broken because under capitalist healthcare, the primary goal is to maximize profit from people’s bodies. Everything else, including patient care, is secondary. Therefore, under this model, it becomes logical to cut costs whenever possible — for example, by decreasing staffing ratios. Healthcare workers have left the industry because they are tired of working in a system that does not care about patient well-being and continues to put money over lives. They joined their workplaces hoping to help others, but many workers soon find out that the system itself does not hold this priority. 

Healthcare is “broken” because the system as it stands was never meant for the maintenance of health for health’s sake — instead, its origins lie in racism, white supremacy, and maintaining worker wellbeing just enough to be tools of labor. In some respects it isn’t “broken” but functions just how CEOs like Sullivan — along with the heads of other sectors of the medical industrial complex such as insurance companies, device manufacturers, and pharmaceutical companies — want it to, as they have the main same goal: profit maximization at all cost. This leads them to constantly work to uphold a destructive healthcare system, while the actual maintenance of health and well being remains secondary. Since a CEO like Sullivan can’t say “I am horrible and part of upholding a horrible system,” he must resort to a refrain like “healthcare is broken” to misdirect the public gaze. Executives like to pretend everyone is “on the same team” wanting to care for patients, but this is not the case. It is the healthcare workers who actually care for patients and communities, and CEOs like Sullivan who are a barrier to providing adequate care.

It Isn’t Just Healthcare

Healthcare workers are fighting this dynamic around the country as healthcare systems continue to exploit workers and harm patients. Luckily those at Mercy Hospital, along with other workers such as the 24,000 workers who voted to authorize a strike at Kaiser Permanente, and the nurses at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Massachusetts — who have been on strike for 7 months and counting — are rising up. These workers are an inspiration for other workers in the United States. If the workers at Mercy Hospital win their demands, for example, they could be a national example of fighting for better staffing ratios and, more broadly, a better healthcare system. A triumph for Mercy healthcare workers is a triumph for healthcare workers around the country and for the growing uptick in labor militancy many are calling “Striketober.”

At the same time, the healthcare workers at Mercy Hospital are fighting a dynamic that isn’t just exclusive to healthcare. Around the country, companies are attempting to drive down wages, cut benefits, and force workers into increasingly horrible working conditions, all in a seemingly endless drive to increase profits. Whether it is the striking workers at John Deere, the film and television workers threatening to strike with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union, oil workers with ​United Metro Energy Corp. (UMEC), the striking workers at Kellogg, or the countless other workers rising up, it is clear many are saying enough is enough. The working class is what keeps this country running and the working class has the ability to shut things down. The only way to battle the ongoing exploitation is for workers to organize and unite to confront this system that puts profits above all else.

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Mike Pappas

Mike is an activist and medical doctor working in New York City.

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