Nurses are set to strike UVM

July 3, 2018

Matthew Gordon and Jake Green report on solidarity efforts underway in Burlington in support of nurses who are prepared to go on strike at the UVM Medical Center.

NURSES AT the University of Vermont (UVM) Medical Center have voted to authorize a two-day strike to demand safe staffing levels and fair compensation — including a $15 an hour minimum for all hospital jobs and salaries compatible with other hospitals in the region.

As the end of the current contract approaches, organizing efforts are ramping up, both in the union and among labor solidarity activists.

The strike authorization vote of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals (VFNHP) ended on June 12 with a 94 percent in favor of “Yes.” vote.

The union managed to turn out three-quarters of its membership despite being forced to vote outside of hospital grounds — mostly in the parking lots of nearby stores. The VFNHP has filed an unfair labor practice complaint in response, adding to an already sizable list of 20 other instances during negotiations.

UVM nurses and their supporters march through the streets of Burlington
UVM nurses and their supporters march through the streets of Burlington (Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals)

Though the union and the hospital have until July 9 to negotiate a new contract, an agreement is looking increasingly unlikely. Hospital executives have made their disregard for the nurses’ proposals clear while simultaneously refusing to admit why.

“At the table, they’ve never said, ‘You know, those [proposals] sound good, but we can’t afford it,’” says primary-care nurse practitioner and VFNHP member Tristin Adie.

Early in bargaining, management freely admitted that they are in excellent financial shape, specifically pointing to the hospital’s $69 million surplus last year. The reason for the hospital’s parsimony is clear, and the nurses know it: the hospital is prioritizing executive compensation and its bond rating, which allows the hospital to borrow more money to spend on development projects.

“And how do they keep their bond rating up?” says Adie. “By keeping our wages low.”

NOT SURPRISINGLY, this isn’t the story that UVM is telling the Burlington community. The hospital continues to tout the figure of a 7 percent increase in salary over the three-year contract, conveniently ignoring that this isn’t enough to cover the rising cost of living and doesn’t apply to veteran nurses.

For some workers who make far less than the nurses, the idea that only nurses should be paid more might seem repugnant. For that reason, activists have organized to build solidarity with the nurses, counter the reactionary agenda of the hospital executives and clear up misconceptions among community members.

In early June, these supporters organized the Alliance in Support of UVMMC Nurses, a group that includes unaffiliated activists and socialists in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — as well as members of other local unions like Teamsters Local 597, whose 2014 strike was aided by a successful community solidarity group.

Local activist Sabrina Melendez also helped to start a Queer Solidarity Alliance in support of the nurses, with meetings that have brought nurses together with members of the queer community in Burlington. Attendees have discussed how health care — especially regarding gender-affirming treatments and surgeries — is often crucial to the health and happiness of LGBTQ individuals.

Community members and nurses collaborated to connect the hospital’s mistreatment of nurses with its failure to treat LGBTQ patients with respect and dignity. For example, charts have no way of handling name or pronoun changes during transition, leading to confusion about treatments and medications.

The meeting has opened a dialogue between LGBTQ individuals and nurses seeking to make a connection — not only in the context of this contract battle, but beyond it — so that LGBTQ patients are treated with greater respect. This alliance is an example of how worker solidarity can serve as a vehicle for reconciliation and healing between groups that the bosses would prefer to see pitted against each other.

ONE OF the most successful and impactful events since the strike authorization vote was a “Nurses’ Town Hall” organized by the VFNHP, which highlighted the impact of understaffing at the hospital.

“We have a physician who spoke to the board of trustees yesterday,” said VFNHP vice president Deb Snell to the crowd. “At their clinic, for twenty-two providers, there was one nurse. That’s a crisis.”

The number of vacancies at UVMMC has fluctuated between 130 and 150 positions in the last month or so, though figures are ever-changing as the hospital gains and loses workers. The result is an unsafe work environment for nurses and an unsafe care environment for patients.

“The hospital has refused to release information on an increase in falls or in bedsores,” said Phil Malcolm, one of the panelists. “The hospital is claiming that it’s the beds.”

Another nurse noted that the hospital has used video monitors as a replacement for direct nurse observation for some of its most critical patients.

Management’s disrespect was another major theme at the town hall, both from the panelists and nurses in the audience. Tristin Adie told a story to illustrate the issue:

Burnout among our colleagues is real, and it is widespread. What’s really interesting to me is that the hospital actually surveys doctors every year to find out whether they’re burned out...They actually called us all together — the doctors, the nurse practitioners, and the physician’s assistants — to go over the results of the latest survey on doctor burnout. They didn’t bother asking us to join the survey.

After the nurses spoke, local organizations and unions gave solidarity statements. A member of the Burlington Education Association (BEA) shared how nurses came out after 12-hour shifts to join the picket lines during last year’s educators’ strike. “Your fight makes your union stronger, it makes our union stronger, it makes every union represented in this room stronger,” he said.

These community events show that there is a wide base of support for the UVMMC nurses. Solidarity is coming from queer and trans youth, veteran union members and many others in Burlington — and reinforcing the commitment of nurses to remain steadfast in their devotion to winning a better hospital for themselves and their patients.

As these public displays of support have grown, UVM Medical Center might be getting nervous. On the second to last day of bargaining, the hospital offered to meet some of the nurses’ demands in exchange for their withdrawing other proposals, dropping all 21 unfair labor practice charges and pledging not to strike.

While this is far from an admission of defeat, it shows that management understands the potential power of a well-organized union with strong support from Burlington’s working class.

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