UPDATE: July 13, 2021: The 1,000 Cook County nurses who waged a one-day strike in June voted to ratify a new contract July 3 that stipulates the hiring of 300 nurses, including 125 newly added positions throughout the system within the next 18 months, according to the union representing them. The deal also includes wage increases to help retain staff, ranging from 12% to 31% over the contract's four-year term.
And the 1,500 healthcare workers at the University of Southern California hospital and clinics reached a tentative agreement and will hold a ratification vote next week, according to a spokesperson from the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents them. However, 1,400 USC nurses represented by the California Nurses Association will hold a two-day strike on Tuesday and Wednesday over a separate contract they’ve been negotiating with the university since November 2020.
This year is shaping up to be an active one for healthcare labor unions, whose members worked on the front lines of the historic COVID-19 pandemic that strained hospital resources and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives across the country.
In Massachusetts, about 700 nurses at Tenet’s St. Vincent hospital are currently waging the second-longest nurses' strike in state history, over staffing levels they want in their next contract, and nurses in a handful of other states have also threatened to strike or done so this year. At the same time, employment contracts covering tens of thousands of nurses employed by chains like HCA expire this summer.
After a tumultuous year for the industry, most large health systems came out unscathed financially, with many turning profits and most receiving federal relief funds. Unions are underscoring this trend in their campaigns.
Major healthcare worker unions were vocal last year throughout the worst of the pandemic, too. The Bureau of Labor Statistics only tracks strikes involving 1,000 or more workers, but among the eight work stoppages it tracked that began in 2020, five involved healthcare unions.
While not exhaustive, here's a look at some recent disputes between health systems and their unionized employees:
Cook County Health nurses waging 1-day strike
Over 1,000 nurses represented by the National Nurses Organizing Committee are slated for a one-day strike Thursday in Chicago. They work for Cook County Health at Stroger Hospital, Provident Hospital and Cook County Jail, and have been negotiating with the county for a new contract for nearly eight months.
Following the one-day nurses strike, over 2,000 social workers, technicians and other Cook County staff represented by Service Employees International Union Local 73 will start an open-ended strike Friday.
Staffing is a key issue, as is pay — according to SEIU 73, the county's latest proposal offers no pay increase for the year, and a 2% increase each year between 2022 and 2024.
A proposal that would boost health insurance premiums is also a central concern for the unions.
"The working conditions won't keep nurses there and the wage scales are not enough to attract new nurses," Consuelo Vargas, a nurse at Stroger hospital and nurse representative for the union, said.
Thousands of nurses in Illinois waged strikes last year, including a weeklong strike at the University of Illinois and another at Ascension's AMITA St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, Illinois.
A Cook County Health spokesperson did not respond to questions on how the hospitals will continue their operations through the strike.
Massachusetts hospital, nurses no closer to deal after more than 100 days on strike
On March 8, about 800 nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, began an open-ended strike when they couldn't reach an agreement with management on staffing levels in their next contract. The Massachusetts Nurses Association and hospital have been negotiating a new contract since November 2019.
The nurses are fighting for specific nurse-to-patient ratios that the hospital strongly opposes be included in their next contract. MNA has unsuccessfully lobbied for staffing ratios through the state legislature for over a decade, and in 2018, voters rejected a nurse-to-patient ratio measure.
Eleven weeks into the work stoppage, the hospital started permanently hiring replacement nurses. It posted at least 100 open positions online, though it's unclear how many roles have been filled. A hospital spokesperson did not respond to a question on those potisions.
Among the 800 nurses who went on strike, 200 have crossed the picket line to return to work, according to the hospital.
Throughout the strike, the two sides have only met a handful of times and currently have no future sessions scheduled.
USC healthcare workers threaten strike without setting a date
At the end of May, 1,500 healthcare workers at the University of Southern California's Keck Hospital, Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and other university clinics voted to authorize a five-day strike. They still haven't set a date, though, according to the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents the USC employees.
Contracts expired in April, and similar to the Cook County nurses, a proposal that would increase health insurance premiums is a key issue at the bargaining table.
The union also wants pandemic preparedness measures outlined in the next contract, including emergency housing and hazard pay guarantees. Negotiations are continuing this week, an NUHW spokesperson said.
Some 96% of members voted to authorize the strike, though the union must set a date and provide a 10-day notice to the university to allow it to make arrangements to continue services through a work stoppage.
Montana nurses waged 3-day strike in June
Over 600 nurses at Logan Health in Kalispell, Montana, went on a three-day strike on June 1 after 19 months of bargaining for their first contract with hospital management.
The nurses joined SEIU Healthcare 1199NW in July 2019, and in their first contract want increased staffing through a nurse-led staffing committee and the reinstatement of charge nurses in every unit. They also want improved wages and benefits to help recruit and retain nurses in the rural region, according to a union release.
A group of nurses at the hospital opposed to the union filed for a decertification election with the National Labor Relations Board in May, though the petition was withdrawn. The initial unionization vote in 2019 was a relatively close one: 372 to 199.
It's unclear whether any additional bargaining sessions are scheduled. A hospital spokesperson and union spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.