#RedforMed: 1,800 Vermont Nurses Are On Strike Demanding Their Hospital Put Patients Over Profits

Rachel Johnson July 13, 2018

Striking nurses have won the support of Sen. Bernie Sanders who blasted the hospital for not offering workers a living wage. (Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals / Facebook)

Ranked 47th for pay in the nation. High turnover, stag­nant wages, and chron­ic staffing short­ages — sound familiar?

You’d be for­giv­en for think­ing these fig­ures refer to the work­ing con­di­tions of West Vir­ginia teach­ers, or those in any of the red states that erupt­ed in strikes dur­ing this spring’s teacher rebel­lion. But, in fact, these fig­ures describe the dai­ly real­i­ties con­fronting nurs­es in none oth­er than the wide­ly-hailed pro­gres­sive state of Vermont.

On Thurs­day, 1,800 nurs­es and 300 health pro­fes­sion­als at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ver­mont Med­ical Cen­ter (UVMMC) began a two-day strike to demand more for them­selves and their patients. At the cen­ter of the strike are issues relat­ed to safe staffing, com­pet­i­tive pay and calls for a hos­pi­tal-wide $15 min­i­mum wage.

One of the cen­tral demands is for safe-staffing ratios, which the union rep­re­sent­ing the nurs­es, the Ver­mont Fed­er­a­tion of Nurs­es and Health Pro­fes­sion­als (VFNHP), sees as inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed to work­ers’ pay. The hos­pi­tal ranks among the low­est for pay in a state that ranks 47th in the nation for nurs­es’ wages, adjust­ed for cost of liv­ing. The longest-serv­ing nurs­es at the hos­pi­tal have not received a pay increase in nine years.

The VFNHP reports that low wages con­tribute direct­ly to staffing issues because the hos­pi­tal can­not recruit and retain staff. The UVMMC, a lev­el one trau­ma cen­ter and the sec­ond largest employ­er in the state, rou­tine­ly has vacan­cies of between 130 and 180 posi­tions. To com­pen­sate for these short­ages, the hos­pi­tal spends exor­bi­tant sums of mon­ey to employ trav­el­ing nurs­es for 13-week stints. The union claims that in some cas­es the hos­pi­tal gives sched­ul­ing pref­er­ences to these trav­el­ing nurses.

In addi­tion to low wages, the UVMMC employs lean pro­duc­tion meth­ods that put both nurs­es and patients at risk. The union claims that the hos­pi­tal has fre­quent short­ages of sup­port staff, includ­ing nurs­es’ aides and order­lies. Accord­ing to Tristin Adie, a nurse prac­ti­tion­er and mem­ber of the bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee, nurs­es in the reha­bil­i­ta­tion unit rou­tine­ly do laun­dry for up to an hour a day, while nurs­es in the oncol­o­gy unit are con­sis­tent­ly tasked with billing and cod­ing duties, and nurs­es across the board are forced to reg­u­lar­ly clean rooms and accom­pa­ny patients to far off places in the build­ing. Adie says that such prac­tices direct­ly con­tribute to an unsafe work­ing envi­ron­ment: nurs­es can­not ade­quate­ly care for patients when they are forced to do the work of sup­port staff in addi­tion to their pri­ma­ry duties.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for the UVMMC did not return a request for comment.

Strik­ing nurs­es say that UVMMC management’s cut­ting of cor­ners betrays the pri­or­i­ties of a hos­pi­tal man­age­ment more com­mit­ted to prof­its than patients. The non­prof­it hos­pi­tal expe­ri­enced finan­cial prob­lems after a for­mer CEO’s fraud scan­dal and the reces­sion, which it large­ly climbed out of by freez­ing wages in order to have more cash on hand, there­by increas­ing its bond rat­ing. Since then, UVMMC has under­gone a peri­od of rapid expan­sion — buy­ing out four hos­pi­tals and small­er clin­ics in New York and Ver­mont, and, in the process, becom­ing the sin­gle largest employ­er in the region.

UVMMC also has plans to begin con­struc­tion on a new build­ing for the Burling­ton hos­pi­tal that would cost $187.7 mil­lion but has not released any infor­ma­tion about how they plan to staff the new facil­i­ty. Mean­while, the hos­pi­tal pro­vides lav­ish salaries for its executives.

As Ver­mont Sen. Bernie Sanders not­ed in a July 6 press con­fer­ence in sup­port of the nurs­es, I find it real­ly hard to believe that the hos­pi­tal has enough mon­ey to pay near­ly $11 mil­lion to 15 admin­is­tra­tors, includ­ing more than $2 mil­lion to the CEO (John Brum­st­ed), but appar­ent­ly doesn’t have enough mon­ey to pay their nurs­es the same wages as nurs­es earn just across the lake in Platts­burgh, where the cost of liv­ing is, in fact, low­er.” The hos­pi­tal is also no longer hurt­ing for cash: it’s total oper­at­ing bud­get is $1.2 bil­lion. Mean­while, UVMMC’s chief finan­cial offi­cer Todd Keat­ing dis­closed that the hos­pi­tal has more than 220 days of oper­at­ing cash on hand. 

Core to the union’s demands is fair com­pen­sa­tion for work­ers whose labor has fueled the hospital’s new­ly acquired wealth and expan­sion. The union is ask­ing for a $15 min­i­mum wage for all ancil­lary hos­pi­tal staff, many of whom are not includ­ed in the bar­gain­ing con­tract. This expres­sion of work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty was sup­port­ed by the vast major­i­ty of union mem­bers, notes Adie. We rec­og­nized that we have pow­er through our union that these peo­ple don’t have. Many of them are new Amer­i­cans, and many came here through refugee reset­tle­ment pro­grams. They are fear­ful of join­ing a union.”

The $15 min­i­mum wage was one plank in a broad­er strat­e­gy of deep inter­nal orga­niz­ing by the union that began over a year ago. Frus­trat­ed over pre­vi­ous con­ces­sion­ary con­tracts, the union began build­ing a net­work that would pro­vide the rank-and-file with the con­fi­dence to stick it out at the bar­gain­ing table and win key demands, includ­ing a 24 per­cent wage increase on par with the salaries of nurs­es at Cham­plain Val­ley Physician’s Hos­pi­tal in Platts­burgh, N.Y, which is also part of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ver­mont Health Net­work. The VFNHP formed mem­ber action teams that put rank-and-file mem­bers in lead­er­ship posi­tions and enabled the union to achieve a 94 per­cent vote to approve the strike from its membership. 

The nurs­es’ sol­i­dar­i­ty cam­paign also looked out­ward to labor and pro­gres­sive allies in the Burling­ton com­mu­ni­ty and beyond. The union made a point of reach­ing out to every oth­er union in the region, includ­ing the Burling­ton bus dri­vers’ and teach­ers’ unions, both of which have gone on strike in recent years.

A coali­tion of left groups includ­ing the Inter­na­tion­al Social­ist Orga­ni­za­tion, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca and the Ver­mont Work­ers Cen­ter formed the group Alliance in Sup­port of UVMMC Nurs­es,” hold­ing edu­ca­tion­al events and a pick­et in sup­port of the strike. A new hash­tag and Face­book page, #Red­forMed, is tak­ing a cue from the sol­i­dar­i­ty cam­paign #Red­forEd in sup­port of the teacher’s strike in Ari­zona, encour­ag­ing sup­port­ers to post pho­tos of them­selves wear­ing red in sup­port of the strike. On the pick­et line, com­mu­ni­ty groups and nurs­es from the New York State Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion and Mass­a­chu­setts Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion will be join­ing the VFNHP.

UVMMC’s man­age­ment, on the oth­er hand, has been intran­si­gent. Late Wednes­day night, union mem­ber Phillip Macomb not­ed in a Face­book post that the union had offered a com­pro­mise in“the hopes of set­tling this con­tract and avert a work stop­page,” but that man­age­ment reject­ed the pro­pos­al and refused to nego­ti­ate. This refusal comes on the heels of a cam­paign of bul­ly­ing and intim­i­da­tion by man­age­ment through­out the bar­gain­ing process, accord­ing to strik­ing nurs­es. The union has filed a total of 21 unfair labor prac­tice charges against man­age­ment, includ­ing attempts to pre­vent union staffers from com­ing on site, tak­ing down union fliers, and refus­ing to seat key deci­sion mak­ers — hos­pi­tal exec­u­tives — at the bar­gain­ing table.

The strike, slat­ed to be one of the most sig­nif­i­cant in the region in years, comes on the heels of the wave of recent teach­ers’ strikes in the Unit­ed States, as well as a mas­sive, ongo­ing strike involv­ing 30,000 nurs­es in New Zealand. Schol­ars have linked the labor activism of nurs­es and teach­ers, not only because they are both female-dom­i­nat­ed pro­fes­sions but also because of the strate­gies they use to organize.

In their book Car­ing for Amer­i­ca, Eileen Boris and Jen­nifer Klein refer to these strate­gies as care work­er union­ism.” Boris and Klein argue that care work­er union­ism draws a straight line between work­ing con­di­tions and the broad­er social wel­fare sys­tem — health­care for nurs­es, pub­lic edu­ca­tion for teach­ers — which defines the con­di­tions of care.” Care work­ers have thus had to advo­cate for larg­er social goods as part of their demands for expand­ed work­ers’ rights.

That is cer­tain­ly what we’re see­ing in Ver­mont, as nurs­es are strik­ing not only for a high­er salary and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions for them­selves, but for a com­mu­ni­ty hos­pi­tal that puts patients above prof­its, and that offers all work­ers dig­ni­ty and a liv­ing wage.

Nurs­es, like teach­ers, often face the sidelin­ing of their con­cerns as work­ers in favor of the para­mount needs of the recip­i­ents of their care. But what about the patients? is a com­mon hypo­thet­i­cal ques­tion meant to dis­cred­it any strike or work dis­rup­tion among health­care providers. But Ver­mont nurs­es know that the two issues are not coun­ter­posed: if the care of patients is to be val­ued at all, the providers of that care must them­selves be val­ued and mate­ri­al­ly supported. 

Rachel John­son is a writer based in Chica­go. She holds a mas­ter’s degree in U.S. his­to­ry from North­west­ern University.
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