Burlington is behind the nurses

July 25, 2018

Matthew Gordon reports on this month’s strike by nurses in the region’s largest hospital system — where community support has laid the basis for an ongoing struggle.

THE 1,800 nurses who work for the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) system are back at work after a two-day strike that dramatized the stakes in this important health care battle — and inspired strong shows of community support in Vermont’s largest city.

Now the question is what comes next — and whether nurses will find themselves back on the picket line or force management to come up with a fair contract that meets their demands for increased pay and safe-staffing levels.

When nurses returned to work after the walkout, they were cynically greeted with muffins and coffee from management. But the hospital wouldn’t come up with anything else in contract negotiations with the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (VFNHP). Hospital executives even dropped their wage hike proposal when the strike began.

Many nurses say they want an immediate strike vote to get back to the picket line and put more pressure on UVMMC, while others are reluctant to go on strike again.

Striking nurses build solidarity in Burlington, Vermont
Striking nurses build solidarity in Burlington, Vermont

But though they haven’t yet forced a new contract out of management, nurses say the strike has bolstered their confidence — especially in knowing for certain that the community has their backs. The strike ended on a note of unity, with some 1,5000 nurses and supporters marching through the streets of Burlington.

As VFNHP President Laurie Aunchman said, “We all went out together, and we are all going back together. We are family now.”

The nurses say they are committed to further organizing and community outreach. According to Tristin Adie, a nurse practitioner and member of the bargaining team, plans for upcoming activities include a vote of no-confidence in Chief Operating Officer Eileen Whalen, regular informational tablings in the community, and efforts to unionize other workers at UVMMC.

THE STRIKE that began on July 12 was solid from the beginning: Union activists say that fewer than 100 nurses crossed the picket line during the two-day walkout despite a propaganda campaign from management.

In the lead-up to the strike, hospital administrators tried to split the union away from the community, asserting that their proposal would solve the short-staffing crisis at UVMMC, and that the nurses were only holding out for higher pay.

But the community response showed most people didn’t buy this lie. At the picket lines set up in 10 locations spread across six towns, nurses were joined by hundreds of Vermonters, many from local unions. Through the Alliance in Support of UVMMC Nurses Facebook page, over 20 labor unions and organizations pledged their solidarity. Other supporters came to the picket lines with food and supplies.

Union nurses traveled from New York and Massachusetts to join the picket lines, and there were delegations from Walmart and Starbucks. Nursing students, Medical Center support staff and even in-patients, with their IV poles in tow, walked the line.

In addition to supporting the nurses’ picket lines, community members organized their own protests, including a picket in front of UVMMC President John Brumsted’s office, something the union could not legally organize.

With all this support, the mood on the picket lines was exuberant, particularly at the hospital’s main campus, where hundreds of nurses crowded the sidewalks at peak hours.

“This is my first strike,” said Savannah Solomon. “I do love a good protest, but it’s unfortunate that it’s come to this. It feels kind of weird, but it’s uplifting to be supported by our colleagues, our community and our patients.”

Across the board, nurses mixed optimism about the strike with vocal opposition to the hospital’s greed. Loretta Miner, a 32-year veteran of UVMMC, summarized the nurses’ position:

We will strike because we cannot continue to be called in to work every day we have off in order to avert an ignored staffing crisis. We will strike because we cannot retain nurses and we are already stretched far too thin to cover the patients’ needs, never mind provide the exceptional care we strive to give. We will strike because nurses know we are only human, and with the current nursing shortage, it’s only a matter of time before someone will get hurt!

A number of nurses pointed out how sexism plays a role in their conflict with UVMMC. “Management has traditionally been male, and the teaching and nursing professions are mostly female,” said Nancy Berg. “We’ve got to see that there’s a fair amount of inequality involved in the pay scales. We’re starting to recognize that, and we’re fighting back.”

ALSO ON the minds of many nurses were their replacements for two days on the other side of the picket line. The hospital hired 600 scabs at a cost of $3 million, casting further doubt on its claim that raising nurses’ salaries would be a financial problem.

COO Whalen said that hospital operations would be “business as usual” during the strike, but there were reports of long wait times and cancellations — which show that a skeleton crew of nurses with no roots in the community is no replacement for united and experienced caregivers.

This isn’t the first brush with nurses from out of state. For years, UVMMC has relied on travel nurses to mitigate the staffing crisis. These nurses are often paid more than union members, but using them is cheaper than raising wages, allowing the hospital to funnel more money into executive compensation and investments.

“This hospital has to have nurses to staff its floors, not travel nurses,” said Kelly Dunford, an ER nurse and member of the union’s bargaining team. “They have to have nurses who can afford to live in Chittenden County.”

Such realities explain why nurses are so angry — and committed to forcing concessions from the hospital. With wages that are lower than at other facilities in a state that is already on the low end of nurses’ pay, the union is demanding a 24 percent wage increase over three years. So far, UVMMC hasn’t come up to half that hike with its proposals.

The pay issue is directly connected to safe staffing. The hospital constantly has open positions in every position outside management because wages are so low. The nurses are also demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage throughout the system so people will be attracted to take those open jobs, lowering the burden on nurses.

The nurses marked the end of the strike with a march from the hospital’s main entrance that wound through residential areas on its way downtown.

While traffic backed up at intersections, long lines of drivers honked in solidarity as marchers chanted, “Get up, get down, Burlington’s a union town.” One van blared the song “Come On Eileen” as a tongue-in-cheek protest of the hospital COO. Chants were deafening, and all along the way, community members greeted marchers with unequivocal enthusiasm.

The International Socialist Organization, Democratic Socialists of America, Black Lives Matter, Migrant Justice and a slew of other groups were present, making the march the most diverse showing of Vermont’s organized left in recent memory.

The march ended at City Hall Park with a barbeque, speeches and a stirring rendition of “Solidarity Forever.” “The past few weeks I’ve been feeling a lot of tension at work, even outside of work,” said Tiffany Choiniere. “But today, and even before coming here, I feel very empowered.”

BUILDING ON the solidarity seen during the strike will be critical in forcing the hospital to pay its workers fairly.

The Alliance in Support of UVMMC Nurses, a solidarity group made up of unionists and other local activists, is organizing public meetings for nurses to expand on their platform. And the letter-writing campaign aimed at John Brumsted and Eileen Whalen will continue as long as they and their fellow hospital executives continue to deny nurses and patients the resources they need.

We also should begin connecting individual local strikes with the struggles of health care workers across the country and the world. In the last few weeks alone, nurses from New Zealand and Rhode Island have walked out over the same issues of unsafe staffing levels and low wages that have plagued Vermont nurses.

The instinct to unite their struggles is reminiscent of the “red state” revolt of teachers this past spring. In fact, nurses and other health care workers sought to repeat the success of #RedForEd this success with a #RedForMed campaign to share solidarity messages with striking UVMMC nurses.

This is just the starting point for what a stronger and bigger working-class movement that can take on the bosses. The heroic actions of Vermont nurses are part of that effort.

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