How Massachusetts nurses waged a 10-month strike

Editor’s Note: In the introductory voiceover for this video, reference is made to “high nurse-to-patient ratios,” but what we meant to say was “low nurse-to-patient ratios” (i.e., individual nurses having too many patients to manage on their shifts).

The COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding failure at every level of government to prevent its spread dealt a devastating blow to healthcare workers. Nurses, doctors, and other medical workers faced increasingly dangerous conditions, along with employers more concerned with increasing profits than saving the lives of their patients or employees. At St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, nurses fought back against their corporate employer by organizing a strike of over 700 workers that lasted for 10 months. Filmed by TRNN contributor Gino Canella, these interviews with St. Vincent nurses comprise an oral history of a ferocious labor battle that became the longest nurses’ strike in Massachusetts state history.

Pre-Production/Studio: Gino Canella
Post-Production: Adam Coley


Transcript

I’m Julie Pinkham. I’m the Executive Director for the Massachusetts Nurses Association. I’m a registered nurse by background: I started my career out here in Worcester at UMass and ended up at the Brigham [and Women’s Hospital] and subsequently at MNA, and I’ve been there almost close to 30 years now. 

It’s not just Massachusetts, it’s not just St. Vincent, it’s everywhere—we’re hearing the issue of nurses facing staffing issues. We have this just-in-time staffing, and there’s this casualization of the workforce where you want everybody part-time or per diem so you can push them into a slot as you need it, whereas previously you would have a lot more full-timers, which gave you the luxury of continuity at the bedside. 

Generally, I always find that management tends to use the word “flexibility.” And the converse of flexibility for management, usually, is control—we want the control of determining when and if something happens; but, ultimately, it’s the nurse taking care of the patient, and it’s him or her whose license is on the line and their decision making. They really are the experts right there to know whether or not they can achieve the outcomes that they need to with the patient population, based on how sick they are and how many resources they need to make that happen. 

Management would like to make it as slim as they can, because resources mean more pay—having people, staffing, is more money out of their pocket. But at the end of the day, it’s the difference between patients doing well and not doing well. 

People don’t go on strike because they feel like going on strike. They go on strike because they see no other opportunity to resolve the issue otherwise. It has to be a place where you feel that my capacity to change the environment doesn’t exist in the building anymore. And that’s ultimately, ironically, that’s the control of the employer. If the employer sets up a process where the nurses—and anybody for that matter—firmly believe that there’s the capacity to make change, realistic change, within the building then nobody would go outside the building. 

You might feel passionately about the issue, you might feel 100% right on the issue, but then you’re being asked to do something that has a dramatic effect not just on you but your entire family. When you make that decision, you still have to go back and you still have to think about it yourself, talk about it: “How am I going to survive?” Talk about the family. So, it’s a lot of emotional work to get through that place of saying something as frightening as, “I’m actually walking outside the building in order to try to make this change.” That’s huge. 

The pandemic highlighted problems, but a lot of the problems existed well before the pandemic. So, nurses would see a schedule—schedules are often put out sometimes six weeks in advance—for when I’m going to work the next month. It would say how many nurses are going to be put on a shift, and there would be huge holes: three nurses scheduled when there should be six. Management will say, “Well, we staff for average daily census, and we’ll plug in people as we go.” They’re sort of waiting to see if the census is low then I’ll only add one, assuming that I can. And then if the census is high, I’ll try to do more. But then what happens, everybody sees a schedule with holes, they have no idea, they’re running around in a crisis mode waiting to see whether or not the staffing is there when they arrive. It’ll be per diems who maybe do not have the same consistency on the unit, maybe a nurse is floated from another unit, so they haven’t worked there regularly. That’s the environment that nurses were left in over and over and over again. 

That’s like, “Well, we’re trying as best we can.” Are you? Are you, really? 

I find that most strikes from an employer perspective are, I think, people get entrenched in a position that is not necessarily in anybody’s best interest, and then they can’t talk themselves out of it. 

It’s the frustration, fear—all of those emotions and anger, a tremendous amount of anger. I think that they, as nurses, were given, during the first wave of the pandemic, no vaccine, no one knew anything about it. They’re changing their clothes in the basements and garages are taking all this risk, all called heroes, which nobody particularly was fond of. And yet, when they’re trying to speak up about what they really need, nobody’s listening. That garners a tremendous amount of frustration and anger. 

You have to give people on the frontline power to have decision making—and real power—not just platitudes. And people, particularly folks that have been in the union for a while and have lived through contracts, understand what’s a platitude and what’s real. “What can I enforce? Where can I actually make change? Who actually respects me and works with me, and who doesn’t?” They can quickly discern when somebody’s just bullshitting them. That’s why they were standing so strong. They didn’t want some piece of language that says, “See, I addressed staffing.” But they look at it and go, “Is that really going to make any change? And did I ask people to go out for something that was really relatively meaningless in the end, just so I could say on paper: See, we got this.” Nobody wants to do that. You can’t b.s. them. I think, not just in this industry, I think pretty much everybody’s done with that. 

One thing that people should keep in mind with any of these issues and contracts is: don’t develop relationships during a strike or just when you need them. Those are relationships, and they’re not for just a particular time. So yes, while we called upon a lot of folks that we knew, we called upon them because everybody in the bargaining unit or staff already had relationships with them. And that is what’s the difference. I would say to you, “If you’re contemplating trying to build that at the time that you’re doing a contract campaign, it’s not the right attitude.” You have to understand that if you really do want solidarity, then it can’t just be about having someone help you. It’s like, “What are you doing to help them?” You have to understand what their issues are, too, and how do you involve yourself in the community? If that’s been ongoing work, and here it has been, then those moments where your back is up against the wall and you make that reach out and you communicate with them and say, “Here’s our situation,” they will rally with you, they will rally with you. And they did here in spades. 

There’s just been a very long relationship here of this particular hospital and the nurses here with the community in general. There are probably some people in your bargaining unit that are more predisposed to it—their natural inclination is to be involved in different community organizations or activities—those are the people that you tap into and say, “You know what, can you be our person, our liaison to these groups? And let us know if there’s something that they need, and we’ll get some people down to their line, and we’ll get some people doing this later on.” Later on, when you least expect it, when suddenly you go, “Oh my God, we have a problem,” then they’ll go: “I remember when you were here and yeah, we care. It doesn’t affect us directly, but we care. We’ll do what we can to help you.”

They know that as this transition goes, and the hospital gets back up and running, there are people that haven’t been back in a while. What will it be like? The nurses, as they started to work on that, just the anxiety of returning, which is normal anxiety, the messaging right across the board was: “We got you, don’t be afraid.” Because you’re looking around at everybody you already know. There isn’t a unit you would go to now where you don’t know somebody who is going to make sure they have your back. You’re more supported now than you have ever been before. And it really is that sense of emotional support and not feeling like you’re languishing on your own that gives people the comfort to go into situations that aren’t always as comfortable as they’d like them to be. 

I hope the employers get more out of this in many ways than the nurses do. Get it together, folks. Really? Really? We’re three years into a pandemic, and you’ve got people frustrated to the max about delivering patient care and leaving in droves. I mean, stick a fork in it, you should be done. You should be driving to the table with these nurses and asking these folks, “What do I do?” And listening. God help you, listen to them. They’re smart, capable, competent people who you trust with your life. Let them have part of a role in the decision making, be respectful of them, and let them drive that aspect of it. You won’t regret it. 

Whether it’s nursing or whether it’s something else, find that place from an organic level where the members are identifying the problem and identifying the solution. Then you can move the agenda from there, and move the strategy from there with them. As long as it’s coming from the bottom up, and it is understood and supported by the bargaining unit, that’s the basis for a successful contract.

The point of the union isn’t to have some sort of cookie-cutter language for how we do it. The point of the union is to have your collective voice and to have power to make changes in the way that you best see fit. 

It says a lot, though, about where we are as a country—that this is the crap that people are having to deal with in this state. Not that it’s right for any other state. But to see that stuff happening in Massachusetts, you’re like, “Wow, wow.” If it’s like this here—this is what people think is acceptable behavior to do? What are they doing in other places that don’t have the level of density or the commitment and the support of the labor movement? It has to be a very, very deep and meaningful discussion of labor rights on a national level. Our income disparity, there are a lot of reasons why it exists, but certainly the laws and the rights and the density of the labor workforce are a tremendous piece of it. 

We don’t live in an economy. We live in a society. And if we have to always make decisions as right or wrong, important or unimportant, on how it affects Wall Street or the economy, that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is how we all live together. What we do as a group, and the labor movement, and how we support each other—realizing and teaching folks that we live in a society, in communities. Those values, those understandings are the ones that are the most important every time.

My name is Aimee Albani. I’m a nurse working in the progressive care unit at St. Vincent Hospital. I’ve been there for 17 years, almost 18 years now. 

We were short of help prior to COVID. And then during COVID, we lost about 100 of our employees to area hospitals—better staffing was one of the main reasons actually, during COVID. And they weren’t being replaced. As a matter of fact, Tenet [Healthcare, which owns St. Vincent Hospital,] was furloughing nurses in an attempt to save money, and we desperately needed them at that time. 

We knew we had to do something because of all this going on. In my unit, after COVID, my unit got somewhat better, as far as help goes. It was other areas in the hospital that were really bad. We’re a union, solidarity—so, we knew we had to get better staffing because this contract was going to go on for three years. Now was the time and they were getting nowhere; the negotiation committee was getting nowhere with the hospital when it came to staffing. So, we decided, well, we’re going to have to push it and go for a vote [to authorize the strike]. My vote automatically was yes, because you’re put in a moral dilemma when you’re short of help. You don’t know which person you should see first, and if something happens, you’re to blame, no matter what the situation. 

They (the MNA) had the vote, and overwhelmingly they got the vote to go ahead and go on strike. I believe after that the hospital had several offers that they gave to the committee that increased benefits, fairly decent, increased wages, fairly decent, but really nothing on staffing. And so, we said, “No.” Because it’s great if you get all the money in the world, but if you can’t do your job, and you’re petrified to go in every day because you might make an error, it’s not worth it. 

We all knew that it wasn’t going to be easy, but I didn’t see a different option. I really don’t see it—to today’s date—I couldn’t see a different alternative that we could have done, because we had done it, and it wasn’t working. 

We know a good standard of care and what that looks like, and we just kept seeing it deteriorating. I really don’t think that this is going to be the first pandemic that we’re going to go through. And so, we have to be prepared for the next one, we have to look out for the nurses coming after us. To me, there wasn’t a decision if they weren’t willing to budge. We have to stand up in force. I graduated from nursing school when I was 20, so 43 years I’ve been in healthcare. Basically, you know, you see that you try to do a lot more with less on a constant basis. Whether it’s supplies, or the cheapness of the supplies, or the oldness of the monitors, and they’re not really working correctly so you try to work around that. Trying to get away with less staff and, you know, just on the decline. That’s why, right now, we are having a shortage of not so much nurses, but nurses that want to work at the bedside. 

It’s a real psychological hit, being on strike. I mean, just the anxiety and the not knowing all the time—you know, when is this going to end? How am I going to pay for this? How am I going to do this? And it’s just constantly beating you down, beating you down, but, honestly, I have very strong faith, and I knew for certain that we were going to win the strike, and we were going to get our jobs back. I had no question. It was just a matter of when, because it was a righteous cause and we knew that we were on the side of truth [with] what was going on inside the building. 

It really was a spiritual experience as well because so many people had to get out of their comfort zone and do things that they probably never would have done: like at the meetings, nurses were at their wits’ end, and they would have to get up and speak and tell people things that they probably never would have wanted people to know. It was humbling. It was really something being in this experience, it really was. And just the prayer, hearing people talk on the line about praying all the time was really something that I was very encouraged by, because I knew that’s what we needed to keep everybody from crossing that line—we needed the hope that He was going to get us there. 

Usually, I would decide to do a letter [to the editor] after the hospital had written something that I felt was totally false, and I didn’t want the public to have that impression of what was going on. It would get me all riled up, and I would sit there and say, “I gotta write a letter, because I have to let people know that this isn’t the case.” Sometimes if it was an article that someone wrote, that hadn’t really been in nursing for a while, and they were trying to make it seem like they had, and that they knew everything that was going on in that hospital, but they hadn’t worked there in years. Or when they had, they were part of management. So, I wanted people to see that this is where this article was coming from when you try to see who’s telling the truth here. 

We don’t have multimillion-dollar propaganda people to write all these articles that say all these things, so we had to make sure that we at least were fighting from our line saying, “No, no, no. This is not how it is.”

I remember picketing one afternoon, and this girl was really down. She was really upset. And she said, “We’re never going to win this. They are just too strong, they’re too powerful, they’ve got the money.” And I’m like, “No, we’re gonna win this.” And she said, “Well, okay, why do you think that?” And I said, “Well, first of all, I have noticed when I’m out here now on the line, that instead of me trying to get everybody’s attention and say: ‘Look at me, this is why we’re on strike. Something’s wrong in there if we are out here.’ It went from that to: the cars were actually honking to us. We’d be talking and the cars would be honking to us.” And I mentioned that to her. I said, “I’ve noticed that.” And she says, “Really? I really haven’t noticed that.” I said, “Okay, start right now, and let’s see. Let’s just stand here and talk while we’re picketing, and let’s just count how many times they actually are trying to get your attention.” It was like, “We hear ya, we see ya, we’re with you.” And it was really funny, because she’d start off: “One… Two.” And towards the end, she’s like, “You know what, I didn’t notice it, but you’re right.” You know, so, people were getting the message. 

It’s exhausting, it’s psychologically exhausting. And plus, you’re constantly covering the picket line. That was huge. It started at 6 a.m. in the morning, and you have to cover it until midnight—every day, every weekend, every holiday for 10 months. That’s a daunting task. 

Although I have to say, there was a lot of support—if you were feeling down, there was usually a lot of support on the picket line. You would meet someone that was on the up end of the roller coaster that could also pick you up. It was like therapy in a way as well. 

When they brought in the replacement nurses, we knew it was just tactics. They wanted to get rid of the union, period. It wasn’t in good faith negotiations. They were trying to keep this as long as they could to starve us out. 

I do think what we did do is: the length of the strike, for one thing, brought a lot of attention to this strike and to the fact that there is a problem with staffing in hospitals. And it’s not just the nurses’ problem. You’re going to be a patient, and if you live in that community, it’s your problem. And guess what? It’s not just this community, it’s all over the United States and beyond. We got letters from Germany, from Ireland, supporting our strike, saying, “We are going through the same things here.” It’s going to make people think long and hard that this is about them, not about us. This is really about them. So, it might behoove them in the future, when it happens again to really put a mouthpiece on it.

My name is Carla LeBlanc. I’m a registered nurse at St. Vincent Hospital. I work in the floor pool. I became a nurse because my mother was really sick, and I went back to school when I was in my 30s and became a nurse, inspired by the care that was given to my mother—and advocating for my mother made me realize there was something missing in nursing to some degree. 

When we were planning on going on strike, and during the strike, a lot of different people from a lot of different places on social media and in the newspaper, nurses that continued to work inside the hospital crossing the picket line, even Carolyn Jackson, [Chief Executive Officer of St. Vincent Hospital], to some extent were saying that it was irresponsible for us to do that. Irresponsible for us to strike during a pandemic; that we’re violating our oath and trying to guilt us into giving in. My thought of that from the very beginning was: my oath, even the Florence Nightingale oath, is to elevate nursing. And I’m not elevating nursing to take a pay raise over having better ratios. I did what I did, going on strike, because I was fighting for those patients, I was fighting for better working conditions for me to take care of those patients, but I was fighting for those patients to get more of my time. 

I, to this moment, do not have any guilt at all about what my decision was, because I’m not some martyr nun sleeping on a straw mat doing everything I can for these patients. I’m a professional, and at a time like this, when the baby boomers are getting older, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic, there’s nothing more important than being able to provide people better care. I don’t feel guilty about my decision to strike. I don’t feel like my oath, so to speak, is sacrificing my patients or sacrificing myself in order for a for-profit company to make more money. 

I think that they do it to women-led professions, because that’s where you can get them: you can guilt women into feeling that it’s their responsibility to do more with less. Maybe women have always done that, but it’s 2022 now, and women are professionals. Almost every woman is a working woman now, and we need to advocate for ourselves like professional working women. This isn’t just a side job for me to buy new pocket books. I mean, this is a profession and we should be taken seriously, as well as teachers and other women-led professions. 

When you’d see people on social media saying, “These lazy nurses. These bully nurses, loudmouth nurses are irresponsible, and they have an oath,” it was hard not to come back at that with anger and frustration. But you tried to respond in a way that you’re going to bring people back into hearing your side of the story. You have to at some point also realize that those people, you’re never going to change their mind—you’re not going to change somebody’s mind if that’s how they feel about this. People made their decision how they felt about which side of the strike they were on, just like politics, which side of politics you’re on. You’re not going to win an argument with that, so sometimes you just have to let it go and let these people say what they were gonna say. 

In the beginning of the strike, for instance, [Tenet] had social media right out there—they were posting, which seemed really odd. That’s something, going forward, that unions are gonna have to think about. [Tenet] has their own Facebook page, they have their own Twitter, and they were posting things like pro-right to work. We haven’t had that kind of strike at MNA. We haven’t had that kind of strike where social media was so big. That was a hill we had to climb and figure out how we were going to overcome that. 

Wildly, our story of St. Vincent striking nurses went across the country on social media to other nurses. There’s a group called the Last Pizza Party who do posts about nurses and unions in healthcare, and they took our story and ran with it. There were a number of different nurses who were making TikTok videos, they were making Facebook posts, all in favor of us. So, it’s almost nice to have somebody else fighting for us. If I was out there posting all the stuff, and saying all this stuff, it would come across as very self-serving, but when other nurses are coming in to join our fight from all across the country, then it amplified our voices. 

We had our own private Facebook group, and people would tell their stories and people would post pictures, and then you’d see those people down on the picket line. Those people would be very friendly. Because my story is not the same as somebody in the GI [gastrointestinal] lab or somebody in the interventional radiology or in oncology or in the cancer center. My story is different than them, and it’s easy for the hospital to be able to separate all of us and to pit us against each other, and pit us against different departments and different groups in our own departments, like with the CNAs and the nurses. It’s easy for the hospital to divide people in the way that they’ve always done. But with social media and technology, they can’t divide us so much anymore, because now we have our own community—we found a way to come together in ways that the hospital couldn’t anticipate, and when we go back it’s going to be a different world for us. It’s gonna be a different world for us to be able to go back in there and, say, when I get a phone call to give me a report on somebody who just had surgery, I’m going to know who that person is on the other end of the phone that I’ve learned in the last nine to ten months—that, in the five years that I was here, I would have never come across that person. I wouldn’t have recognized him in the hallway.

We built such a community. I feel like other unions could build such a community before ever having to go on strike. If we knew then what we know now about how to communicate, I almost think this strike could have been different. But we would have ended up with the same result, I believe. I think that being able to communicate with people in a different way with technology has changed strikes forever. 

There wasn’t a day that you didn’t see somebody from another union coming down and walking the picket line. We had meetings every Wednesday night at the Teamsters, who were so generous to let us use their hall. But while we were at the Teamsters, other unions would sign up to come down and cover the line while we were in our meeting. We had generous donations—of money, gift cards, food items, all kinds, you couldn’t even imagine all these things. We had donations from across the world. We had donations from Europe, we had donations, I think, from every corner of the earth. We’ve had letters and messages sent to us. It was completely overwhelming how, you know, I wasn’t in a union before this, so I was kind of blind to this. When you see how well people take care of you and how people are thinking of you, it was really overwhelming. It was really overwhelming. 

It was definitely a challenging strike. I think that we started off fighting for our contract, fighting for the better ratios and patient care. That was the beginning of the strike. It was almost like we had two strikes. Then in August [of 2021], we reached the agreement, but they weren’t going to allow nurses to go back into their positions. It was almost like that was a second strike. And our second strike had to do with labor rights and workers’ rights. 

It’s hard not to be motivated when your cause is so strong, when your cause is to fight for patients—that was a compassionate fight. But then the second half of the strike was an angry fight; these nurses who’ve been here for 30-40 years deserve to be there because they’re the smartest ones there. I don’t want my mom to be taken care of by somebody who’s not the smartest, most experienced one there. 

I’m hoping that 20 years from now, what we’re fighting for is standard and that everybody’s getting it, whether you’re in a union or not. At the end of the day, that’s what I hope for: that you don’t need to have a union to have these things. We shouldn’t have to have a union to have good healthcare. We shouldn’t have to fight for everyday citizens having good healthcare, especially healthcare that they’re paying a lot of money for. We shouldn’t have to fight this hard for that. 

I hope that this fight changes that to some degree because, I mean, Tenet is one of the biggest for-profit healthcare companies, and if 700 small town nurses can beat them, I think anybody can beat for-profit healthcare. I think we’ve proven that. I’m hoping. 

David Schildmeier, Director of Communications for the Massachusetts Nurses Association. 

For any union contemplating a strike, it’s a momentous decision and it’s a momentous undertaking, especially an open-ended strike. It was not a decision that was made within a few months. Ours was a year-and-a-half to two-year process where we did everything we could to continue to reach out to the membership to validate that these issues were important to them. So, that’s why we had a petition in 2019, not only to show management, but to test the members: “Will you put your name on a document that says this is an issue, the staffing levels are worth fighting for?” So, it’s a test of the level of support. When you get 70-80% signed on to that, that’s a test. 

Another thing is constant communication. We had a group Facebook page that we had started well before, back in 2019. There was daily posting and communication for nurses, and in a two-way communication, a private group page to talk about what’s going on at the table. As we did that, we had a primer on strikes, which is a Q&A that we distributed to all the nurses repeatedly and posted on Facebook that walks them through every question we’ve ever been asked about a strike: “What happens to my health insurance? Can I be fired? When do I picket? How do I picket?” Anything they could possibly want to know ahead of time. And nurses are walking the floors with those documents, and they’re asking, “Are you ready to strike?” All the way along, you are gauging their interest. Once we understood that they were ready, it was then and only then that we scheduled a vote to authorize the strike. 

Fortunately for the nurses at St. Vincent, those nurses, many in the leadership had been through a strike, a 49-day strike, in 2000. So, they could speak from experience as to what nurses should face. Communication is key. A lot of that work, too, was public work. Whenever we did a petition, we did a press release about it. And when we protested a furlough of nurses, we were out there in the press talking about it. When we did daily picketing, the community saw those nurses every day out there with signs saying that it’s unsafe. You’re not only educating the members, but we were seeding the public with what was happening at the hospital over a long period of time. So, it wasn’t just out of the blue on March 8, [2021]: “Why are all these nurses on strike?”

At the same time, there’s a third leg to that: we were working with our community organizers and our nurses were meeting with the local labor unions. We would have legislative delegation meetings months before we even said the word “strike” to inform them of where we were headed with this, what the conditions were. Nurses talked to policymakers on the state and federal and local levels about the issues that the nurses were facing, so that when it came time to go out on strike, the public knew what the issues were and it had been well informed—they weren’t surprised by it. 

I’ve been talking to the media for 30 years, trying to make them pay attention to nursing. I would have to cajole the Boston Globe reporter or Channel Five to come pay attention to a picket or whatever. During COVID, that all changed. Remember, people were standing on balconies banging on pots and pans because for the first time, the public got a rare glimpse at what nurses do. My phone never stopped ringing, from 2019 through now, I am getting a call every day from some member of the media wanting to talk to nurses, understanding the value of nursing, wanting to have nurses tell their story. That whole time, 2020 into early 2021, the media was hearing the nurses’ story, hearing the frustration, seeing the national stories and our stories about the lack of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment]. Like other essential workers, nurses were held up as heroes and also seen as victims of the problem, which made it so when the nurses went on strike, the public understood why they were going on strike by this time. 

Were we afraid? Yes. But what we have seen is that this was a watershed moment, I think, for all essential workers to speak up and don’t let this pass. This is the time when the public understands your value. All unionized workers who work as essential workers should be very outspoken at this time, because now we have the public’s attention. Now is the time, I would argue, that there’s no better time for nurses to stand up; and nurses have been held up as heroes across the board. 

Any strike is a roller coaster ride. You have great days, and then the opposition does something that tries to knock you down. Throughout this strike, the employer was looking for ways to intimidate the nurses: when they tried to take away the health insurance, when they were stalling on giving them the legally required Cobra subsidies, things like that. Nurses didn’t cross, from the beginning of the strike to the end. In 10 months, maybe 20 nurses who didn’t go out, who didn’t stay out originally, ended up going back into that hospital. That’s astounding. 

Very few, if any nurse, ever said that what we’re fighting for is not worth it. That was the difference. That’s what kept them going. 

To understand the impact a strike has on nurses, you need to understand how hospitals operate. For instance, we got very little improvements in the maternity nursing unit, but they were some of the strongest strikers. They understood that the medical surgical floors were getting killed, and they are out there for 10 months. You got to believe that there’s a relationship that develops that we’re all in this together. So that when they go back, that nurse calling up from the ED [Emergency Department], calling to the ICU [Intensive Care Unit], they’re no longer the ICU nurse; it’s “Hey, it’s Betty.” Or, “It’s Jim from the ED.” They know their kids, they walked with their families on a Sunday, or were at one of our rallies or events celebrating together. What hospitals don’t realize is, what they create is a monster for them. 

It’s no surprise that the St. Vincent nurses for years have been one of our strongest bargaining units and most effective local union. Why? Because they went on strike to get their first contract for 49 days [in 2000]. They had built that and were able to build on that. Well now, going forward, you got this group of nurses who have been through something else, even longer and stronger. So yeah, there is something, a benefit that you get that is aside from whatever you get on paper; you get a sense of solidarity, and a sense of accomplishment and of your power that you didn’t have before.

Nurses are realizing that no one cares for them. The industry abandoned them. All the healthcare agencies abandoned them during the pandemic. The [Department of Public Health] was changing its regulations on PPE on a weekly basis, and the nurses knew that the standards they were expected to work under were blatantly unsafe and dangerous. So, nurses realize that no one is going to take care of us in this system but ourselves. And how do you do that? I can be a loudmouth on my unit, I’ll probably get fired or disciplined. Unions, because of things like the St. Vincent nurses, have shown—and that’s why they’re heralded as heroes across the world and across the country—that they made the fight for the right reasons. 

What we have now is what’s been characterized in the literature as an ongoing moral injury. There is research that details this: it’s called a moral injury. It first was studied about soldiers having to go into war and kill and do horrible things, knowing that they’re wrong. Well, for nurses going to work every day with five, six, or seven patients, and leaving every day knowing that you didn’t provide what those patients needed, and you may have harmed or hurt them or prolonged their illness or their suffering. That’s a moral injury. That’s not a job for a nurse. That’s something they carry with them. 

We have millions of nurses across this country, and hundreds of thousands of nurses in Massachusetts, who are suffering from post-traumatic stress from what they’ve experienced. What we’ve got to figure out is how, as a society—not only for them, but for all essential workers—how are we going to restructure our society to value that sacrifice, and put our money in different places, particularly in healthcare, where these corporations are making billions of dollars in profits. Tenet Healthcare made a profit during this pandemic of over $695 million, between 2020 and 2021. During the strike, they made a profit of over $400 million as a corporation, while forcing 600 nurses on the street for 10 months. It’s not about money; it’s about values and resources and where we’re going to put them. 

More importantly is the impact it’s going to have on their families and their kids. All the kids who walked that line, when they grow up and they are adults, and they get pushed around, they’re going to be more willing to stand up. And that’s the change that goes well beyond this individual action in 2021-22. It’s going to last for generations.

My name is Dominique Muldoon, and I’m a registered nurse at St. Vincent Hospital. I’m also co-chair of the local bargaining unit. 

A 10-month strike, you have incredible highs and lows. I would say that you’re not on an even keel at all. There would be these heartbreaking things that would happen. We went through every emotion possible during this strike—from elation to incredible depression. There were several times we thought we had a chance to make a deal to get back in that building, and then it didn’t happen. It’s like your hopes are so high and then they come crashing down when it falls through. 

Also, we had so many life events on the line: we had babies born, we had deaths that happened on the line where someone’s spouse had died, terrible diagnoses. And then we had joyful events: we had the whole community come out and support us with legislators, and we held each other up during the low points and even during the high points. But, you know, that’s what it really was: you’d have a day where you just didn’t feel like you could go on and you would go to the picket line and somebody would be talking to you, and it would bring you up somehow. We relied on each other a lot. 

We developed group chats, and we had our Facebook page that we tried to try to keep positive. We posted pictures of the wonderful times and inspirational moments, and that really got us through. But for me personally, I always knew that we would get a settlement. I didn’t know when, but that as long as we were true to our own values and our own beliefs, we would get a successful settlement. And those two beliefs were that we would get some improvements on staffing, and that we would all go back into the building together—nobody would lose their job. So, I held on to that and that became our rallying cry, really: no nurse left behind, no patient left behind. 

The strike office became a thing. Who would have thought it would become such a social kind of environment? People would stop in there, and you met people from all over the hospital that you didn’t really know beforehand—people in the OR [Operating Room] don’t come out to the floors, so you would have limited access. But we got to know people in the OR and people in different units: from the ICU to the specialty areas on the picket line. It was just a great grassroots kind of…  when they had the party line for the telephones back in the day, it was kind of like that. You’d hear something from somebody from another unit, and word would get out that way. 

One of the great things that developed throughout this strike is there was a favorable perception from the media and the public. I think they knew that when we said something that it was true. That if we said that there were not enough nurses at the bedside, or that we weren’t in the building because we didn’t feel it was safe enough to be in the building, they knew that was true. Reporters would just come to the line very often. We just had our rank-and-file members do interviews. It was kind of an organic kind of thing that happened. It wasn’t something we planned or trained people up for. They would hear the same story. It didn’t matter whether they were talking to Dominique Muldoon, co-chair, or rank-and-file member, Carla LeBlanc, who was also a picket captain, the story would be the same. Our stories were all the same about why we were on strike. I think that when you have 700 nurses saying the same thing it speaks to the veracity of it. 

I think that the lesson learned here is: How do you make conditions in your hospital, and the work environment for nurses, better? Of course, pay and pensions and health insurance, hospitals should be taking care of their healthcare workers in that way so that we can come to work and be healthy and do a good job.

There was no playbook for this. We were pretty much having to figure it out on our own with our union, because it was so unprecedented. You don’t see 10-month strikes where you see an employer that just says, “Yeah, we’re not going to talk to you for three months. You guys are on strike. We don’t want to resolve this. We’re just going to replace you, and we’re going to go three more months and then six more months.” I don’t think that happens on any kind of routine basis. This is one of the first times and we had to come up with some creative things, our leadership had to come up with some creative things to move it, and hopefully it reached people in a positive way.

My name is Carolyn Moore. I’ve been a nurse at St. Vincent for 43 years. I work in the endoscopy unit right now, but I’ve been in several areas throughout my career. And I’ve been on the MNA committee at St. Vincent Hospital for 20 years. 

When I started nursing 43 years ago, patients were up walking before they got to go home. Today, the acuity of the patients at the bedside are patients that used to be in the ICU, intensive care units, because of their medications, because of the conditions. A lot of nurses now are caring for five of these patients on telemetry units that have had invasive procedures in the cath lab, or have a cardiac drip after they’re recovering from a heart attack. They need closer watch. That’s why we were going for less patients per nurse.

We had frequent meetings with our nurses. We kept them updated the whole time. It was communication—if you do not have the communication with your fellow employees, you’re not going to have the backing. And these nurses told us, “We will go out on strike. We don’t want the staffing levels that we have now. We need better staffing.”

So, we took a vote and 89% of the nurses that voted, voted “Yes”—they wanted to go out on strike over staffing. You have to have a high level of employees that want to go out on strike. You can’t go by, ‘Well, I think I will.’ You need to hear a definite, that that’s what they’re going to do. We had over 800 nurses in the hospital, 700 walked out that door. That is amazing. I mean, everybody has to be on board; you’re going to have a few [who won’t strike], but you need to have a huge majority, strong feelings of your strike, number one. Number two, you have to have community support. I felt the community supported us very well. We had fellowship, you know, other bargaining units coming in, other unions coming in. Community support was huge. And family support is huge. 

Did we think we were going to be out for 10 months when we went out? Absolutely not. We thought that this was a strong issue. We thought that it was the right issue for the community, for the nurses caring for patients, and for the patients number one. 

You know, being a committee member, when I walk out on that picket line, I feel like part of my job is helping the nurses that are out there—keep everybody uplifted, they’re doing the right thing, we’re staying strong together. 

St. Vincent Hospital is a community hospital. It is not a big business. They’re turning it into a big business. They have taken the heart and soul out of that hospital. And that’s what hurts so much to many of us. I grew up in Worcester. I was born and raised in Worcester. My kids were born at St. Vincent Hospital. My parents died at St. Vincent Hospital. I mean, it’s a hospital. And that’s what hurts so much. That’s what hurts me. I can’t go somewhere else. Most of us that work there have been there. We have a lot of longevity. Not many hospitals have that. Nurses move from here to here, what works best for them. But most of the people at St. Vincent Hospital aren’t there for money and aren’t there for the glory. It’s hard work there. 

We’re fighting a big company, Tenet Healthcare. They’re horrible. “We can use less staff, have more patients, get paid more.” This is how I feel that these companies are looking at it. They’re making a profit. They want the profit, and they’re taking it from the patients’ care to make their profits. It’s just like being a parent with a child; you want the best for that child, and you have to give the best that you can. If you are a nurse at the bedside and you’re not giving the best care that you can, it’s very sad, very sad. 

Nursing is a wonderful career. It’s a great career. The reason people are leaving nursing is because number one, it’s dangerous if you don’t have the right staffing, and number two, it’s exhausting. You know, I’m very proud of my profession and that’s the only way we’re going to get people back into the profession: we have to stop these big businesses turning it into a for-profit when we’re talking about peoples’ lives. 

COVID knocked nurses right out. I mean, all healthcare workers. But when you have a company that’s making billions of dollars, and getting billions of dollars from our government, and they’re sending nurses home who work in my department, a specialty area who has minimal patients because of COVID, and we’re asking to go work on a COVID floor to assist the other nurses, and they’re saying, “No. You can go home.” And that nurse has got five COVID patients, how long do you think that nurse is going to last? 

It’s who’s running the hospital that makes the difference, and which hospital it is. I hope this strike opens up a lot of eyes to a lot of different areas, and especially the administration of hospitals. Listen to what went on here, and listen to the nurses in the hospital. It’s not a self-beneficial job. We’re caring for people, and if we’re saying we need help, then we need help.

My name is Bill Lahey. I’m a registered nurse. I’ve been at St. Vincent for 44 years. I was one of the negotiators on the executive committee of our bargaining unit here at St. Vincent for a number of years. 

As a negotiator and part of the union hierarchy, let them talk. You don’t have to hear from me being a negotiator, other than for me to inform you how the negotiations are going. That’s my job to inform you as your representative. To have you, as a staff nurse, you’re telling a story, and the emotions are coming out. That’s what all the other people on the Zoom were seeing. You know, I get goosebumps just thinking of that. Because that was exactly what motivated them even more to hold the line, to keep people’s spirits up, because your spirit goes down the longer you’re out. It’s like: “Why is it taking so long? Why is it taking so long?”

Those [Zoom meetings] helped. Once the pandemic was— we could get in with a mask on, we could at least be together and talk to each other. So, it was good. 

My name is Lahey [laughs]. Irish Catholic, boy, brought up I’ll be a priest. Well, obviously I’m not. But walking the line and being a negotiator and walking line every day, every day, was just to be pastoral. Let them vent. I was dealing with women that were being verbally abused by their spouses to say, “This can’t go on any longer. You have to go back to work. You have to cross the line and get another job.” So, they felt just venting to another person to listen to them— or their child got diabetes, and they were worried about the insulin: “What are we going to do about Cobra?” And all of a sudden, you know, some of my nurses had cancer treatments while they were out, and they still came out on the line. I’m like, “Oh my God!” I mean, those stories are never going to get out. Well now, just because I’m talking to you. But that didn’t get put out in the press. 

Sometimes they (the nurses) came up and physically grabbed me and they’d swear at me, you know, “What the F are you people doing?” Meaning, what is the union doing? It’s like, “We are not doing this! We want to settle the strike, too.” Then at the end of the day, after they grabbed you in anger, or the next day, they came back and said, “I’m sorry, I got mad at you.” And I said, “Don’t worry about it, let it go.” It’s just the peaks and valleys and the emotions of these people that, you know, remember one thing: we went out and suffered financially and emotionally and psychologically and spiritually for the consumer of healthcare and the people of Central Massachusetts. We took that on for you

The journalism that I grew up with was different than the journalism I’m seeing today. The Worcester newspapers, what I saw was: they would come to me and ask me what was going on, and I would give them my take, and then they would go back in and talk to Carolyn Jackson and others, doctors that were heads of divisions, which are bought by Tenet, you answer to Tenet. So, they didn’t go back and forth about the meat of the issue. They would just say, “Okay, Bill talked about this, and Carol Jackson came back with this.” Why not be more aggressive? Don’t be afraid to hold the President of the United States accountable when you get up in a press conference, you know what I mean? That’s your job. 

The thing is, I don’t like social media. I don’t like Facebook, I don’t like Twitter. I used to say to a lot of the nurses who would go on and they would even go on to Tenet’s page: “What are you going on to— you’re only going to get yourself more upset. They have their agenda, and they’re going to beat us down, and by you looking at that, it’s working.” Because then, every day, I would have to come back out and say, ‘Are you going to listen to their propaganda? Or are you going to listen to what we have to say?’ But yeah, social media, it was more of a disaster from my standpoint looking at it, because every day I went out there [to the picket line] and go, “Why are you doing that to yourself? Why?”

I, along with some others, felt this was calculated by Tenet and Carolyn Jackson: they were going to push this all the way down the line. This clearly was to union bust. And I said this to the local politicians that were out there, too. I said, “If we die on this hill, the St. Vincent nurses, all of labor dies with us.” Because if we ever let them determine who will come back to work in the same positions and who won’t, where would unions go? Unions will die. Because you’re going to go out on strike knowing that when you’re done, you’re going back to your job. And they’re saying 106 or 110 of you are not going back. That just blew us away! No way is this going to happen. 

We needed to get people out here. We did have showings. We did have some showings on one day, where I had some AFL-CIO, I had the Teamsters, I had some teachers from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, I had some nurses from the MNA. And I was extremely upset, because we needed more people out here, and I didn’t see it. Yeah, we had a couple hundred. That was not enough. I wanted to fill up Summer Street across from the post office with bodies of unionism, and we didn’t get it. I see everybody just in their own little cocoon. I don’t understand what it is going to take for the American worker— this is beyond me being an MNA nurse at St. Vincent. This is about all of us workers in this country. How far are you willing to fight for it? We can push back. Numbers matter. 

I’m not going to give up, and that’s just my stubborn nature. Even my wife will tell you that. [Laughs] But I will continue the fight. I think what we need to do as nurses is to get out to the college levels to at least give our side of what unionizing healthcare [can look like]. I’m still looking at the glass as half full; I’m just still upset that it took so long, and maybe it wouldn’t have if we had more of a showing. 

I was told by a physician, “You know, Bill, you can be Don Quixote and chase your windmills.” And I said, “You know, yep, I can do that. But at least I won’t be a Judas for 30 pieces of silver. You have a good day,” and walked away. 

Nursing is an art. It is not science; it’s based on science because we have to have anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry, all that stuff, pharmacology. Yes, we do. But it’s an art of how to care for human beings. Sometimes you’re blessed, and I look back and say, “I’ve been blessed, because I went into this not for money, just to do the right thing to help take care of patients.” So, I’ll be Don Quixote as I ride off chasing my windmills, I guess. [Laughs] But the windmill I’m chasing is basically for the greater good of people.

Gino Canella

Gino Canella is a documentary filmmaker and assistant professor of journalism and media at Emerson College. He produces media with grassroots organizations and researches labor, social movements, and journalism. His forthcoming book, Activist Media: Documenting Movements and Networked Solidarity, will be published in April 2022 by Rutgers University Press.