By MALLORY GRUBEN
More than 1,300 health care workers struck two PeaceHealth hospitals in Southwest Washington Oct. 23-27.
PeaceHealth is a Vancouver-headquartered non-profit Catholic health care system with facilities in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (OFNHP) represents lab professionals at PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center in Longview and hospital techs and service and maintenance workers at PeaceHealth Southwest. All three units authorized a strike with 95% approval, and OFNHP called the walkout to protest PeaceHealth’s bad faith bargaining.
Leaders of the OFNHP bargaining teams say they tried for months to negotiate pay raises and improved safe staffing standards, but PeaceHealth refused to meaningfully respond to the lab professionals, and moved little with the other groups. In August, the hospital stopped bargaining, declared impasse and walked out of negotiations.
“They have no idea what we do, what it’s like out there,” said Jodi Atteberry, chair of the service and maintenance bargaining team.
Atteberry works in the Vancouver hospital’s telemetry unit, where she watches heart rate monitors for patients who need continuous cardiac monitoring. She frequently works alone, in a unit that’s supposed to have four workers on duty to be considered fully staffed. That means she has to watch 48 monitors, when she should have just 12.
“Someone could die if I don’t catch a problem and tell the nurse,” Atteberry said.
Atteberry said many workers pick up extra shifts to fill staffing gaps and support their patients, or for the extra money, because they don’t make enough to cover all their bills on a regular salary.
In bargaining, PeaceHealth proposed a wage floor of $17 an hour for service and maintenance workers, calling that a “socially just wage.” Washington’s minimum wage will be $16.28 in January. Jerry Chidester, vice chair of the union bargaining team, says he asked management negotiators what made 72 cents more than minimum wage “socially just.”
“They said, ‘That’s just what we are calling it,’” Chidester said.
Originally, OFNHP planned for an open-ended strike. But after PeaceHealth announced it would cut off workers’ health insurance if the strike went into November, the union set an end-date so workers wouldn’t have a lapse in medical coverage.
“The fight does not stop at 7 o’clock Friday night. The fight is continuous,” Tech Bargaining Team Chair Shawna Ross told picketers during a rally Oct. 26. “You have shown your power. … I’m asking you to take the energy this week and put it into wearing red next week. Do not take their crap.”
Leading up to the strike, PeaceHealth executives demanded by email and letter that workers notify supervisors if they planned to go on strike. They offered a $400-per-shift incentive for any worker willing to cross their union’s picket line. (Some union members did cross the picket line, Atteberry said.) At midnight Oct. 23 — six hours before workers planned to start their strike — the hospital deactivated the security badges that let workers into secure areas of the hospital, and managers threatened to tow any cars parked in the hospital’s lot.
“Some of us were still on shift. People couldn’t get to their patients to treat them, because their badges were turned off,” Atteberry said.
PeaceHealth called in hospital security to escort the workers off the property, and erected security fencing around the facility for the duration of the strike.
Asked about the deactivation of workers’ badges, PeaceHealth spokesperson Debra Carnes said striking workers aren’t allowed on campus during the strike unless they require medical care, and she directed other questions to the PeaceHealth website. The site says PeaceHealth hired 168 replacement workers through an outside agency and assigned other work to “appropriate non-union staff.”
On the first day of the strike, picketers outside of PeaceHealth Southwest in Vancouver were joined by members of Fire Fighters Local 452, IBEW Local 48, Washington State Nurses Association, Oregon Nurses Association, and Evergreen Education Association. Atteberry said even construction crews working on an emergency department expansion stopped work to respect the picket line.
On Oct. 26, American Federation of Teachers national president Randi Weingarten joined the picket line and spoke at a rally. (AFT is the parent union of OFNHP).
“What this tells PeaceHealth is that the workers are unified and they will sacrifice to get the respect and dignity they need,” Weingarten said.
Strikers returned to work Oct. 28. The lab professionals were scheduled to meet with PeaceHealth Oct. 30, but hospital execs never showed up. A federal mediator told the union that the hospital had no new proposals. On Oct. 31, PeaceHealth met with the service and maintenance bargaining team but made little movement. Negotiations with the Vancouver tech workers were scheduled for Nov. 7.