By ERNIE GOTTA
— BOSTON — About 1200 nurses at the Tufts Medical Center went on strike in July. Following the strike and a four-day lock-out, they returned to work on July 17 without a new contract in place. The union says it was the largest nursing strike in Massachusetts history.
Socialist Action recently interviewed Stefanie Reis, a nurse since 2008, who joined the picket line in solidarity with the striking nurses. Stefanie works as a nurse on union construction sites in Boston and is a member of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA). She is also on the executive board of the Boston Democratic Socialists of America.
Ernie Gotta: Why did nurses at the Tufts Medical Center go on strike?
Stefanie Reis: I’ve listed the key issues noted on the MNA’s website, along with my take on each issue:
1) The need for improved nurse staffing with safer patient assignments for nurses throughout the hospital.
Too many patients means that a nurse can’t give patients the attention they need and deserve. Encounters are brief and can feel rushed. This creates the potential for nurses to miss a critical change in a patient’s condition. It can also leave a nurse vulnerable to physical harm if they miss a change in a patient’s mental status.
2) The need for more IV nurses and clinical resource nurses. Doctors order additional treatments and medications for patients throughout the day. IV and clinical resource nurses would follow through on these orders, which would result in the patient receiving the treatment or medication in a timely manner without the primary nurse having to squeeze one more thing into their already tight schedule.
3) The need to have charge nurses who are free of patient assignments at the start of all shifts, in all units.
A charge nurse is an RN who is responsible for managing all aspects of nursing responsibilities during each shift, from processing patients in and out to delegating nursing rounds. Being free of an initial patient assignment will allow Tufts’ charge nurses to provide desperately needed support to patients and nurses at the busiest time (i.e., change of shift). When a charge nurse has a patient assignment, they are unable to complete the above responsibilities, which means they fall on the shoulders of the regular staff nurses.
4) The need for wage improvements that will make the hospital market competitive, thereby improving nurse recruitment and retention.
Nurses at Tufts are the lowest paid in Boston. Some nurses are working three jobs just to make ends meet. The reports of Tufts nurse’s wages being high were based on outlier wage data. Some of the wage data included health insurance and pension in the nurses’ wages. You can’t eat your pension. You can’t pay your mortgage with health insurance.
5) The need for pension protections/improvements that will make the hospital market competitive. Tufts has proposed harsh cuts to pensions, and rejected the counteroffer from the MNA.
EG: The CEO of Tufts, Dr. Michael Wagner, had this to say about the Massachusetts Nurses Association: “Somebody has to step up and say the intimidation, harassment, and bullying of the MNA has to be stood up against.” What are your thoughts on his comment and the way he has dealt with union?
SR: This is the typical anti-union rhetoric I’d expect to hear from a CEO. CEOs care about their bottom line, regardless of the impact on care. Nurses care about their patients.
EG: After locking the MNA nurses out following a one-day strike, Wagner has used temporary nurses to help run the hospital. When people say, “a nurse strike only hurts the patients,” how do you respond? What would you say to those who have crossed the picket line?
SR: The hospital is the one putting the patients at risk, not the nurses. Nurses do not strike for themselves; they strike to protect their patients. And they do not take striking lightly. The nurses are striking because they know that their current work conditions cause potential harm to patients. Safe patient ratios lead to improved health-care outcomes for patients. Nurses need fair wages. Nursing is inherently stressful. Financial difficulties can lead to increased stress. The last thing a nurse should have to worry about at the end of their already stressful day is finances.
EG: What are the differences for nurses in union vs. non-union hospitals?
SR: Non-union facilities have significantly lower wages, significantly higher number of patients on assignment, verbal abuse, manipulation, and bullying from management to staff and nurses, infrequent raises, little to no benefits—I’ve worked as a nurse without health insurance—constant understaffing, and nepotism.
EG: What would you say to others in the medical profession in non-union workplaces who are fed up with working conditions?
SR: Having attempted to talk to management for improvements in non-union workplaces, I can tell you that you’ll be beating your head against a wall, or may be targeted and pushed out of your position. This happened to me once for discussing staffing concerns and wages in a non-union facility. Management will not help you, but the union will. Talk to your co-workers. Find out what problems you are experiencing in common. Then talk to your local nursing union. The MNA here in Massachusetts are fantastic. They are a great resource, and will help you unionize your workplace.
EG: I read the other day that a contingent of union members in the building trades showed up to support the striking nurses. Can you talk about what solidarity looks like on the picket line? What did it mean for the nurses’ strike to have such a turnout from the building trades?
SR: I was at the picket line in solidarity with Tufts nurses. I work as a nurse on construction sites. Seeing the building trades come out in support of the nurses was truly one of the most inspiring moments of my life as an activist. There was an extra layer of meaning for me to see workers who are essentially my patients come out in support of the nurses at Tufts. The picket line was a new experience for the nurses, most of whom have never been part of a strike before.
The building trades are more experienced in supporting striking workers, which was evident in the energy, excitement, and militancy that they brought with them. The nurses were overjoyed to see the showing of solidarity. It was impactful for the nurses to see the streets flooded with people.
EG: What has this strike meant to nurses in other hospitals?
SR: The nursing community views the strike favorably. Most nurses I have spoken with went to the picket line to support Tufts nurses. We understand what it’s like to want the best for our patients while being overworked, understaffed, and underpaid, and understand that the decision to strike does not come lightly. We are all waiting with baited breath for the negotiations to start again.
EG: What way forward do you see for nurses at Tufts and elsewhere fighting for wages, better conditions, and benefits?
SR: We need to continue to organize in our workplaces. Working people united in struggle is what has made the most gains throughout history, and will continue to do so.
Photo: The Boston Globe