The biggest nurses union in the country is teeing up a fight with hospitals run by HCA Healthcare, Sutter Health and CommonSpirit Health as it heads into negotiations for some 65,000 nurses this year.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed problems faced by nurses ranging from inadequate personal protective equipment to unsafe staffing levels, members of National Nurses United said at a press conference held virtually Friday.
The union said at least 405 nurses died after contracting COVID-19 during the pandemic, among the nearly 600,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S.
"We walk into these bargaining negotiations with these painful memories," said Sandy Reding, a CommonSpirit Health operating room registered nurse and president of the California Nurses Association National Nurses Organizing Committee.
Heading into contract negotiations after more than a year on the ultimate frontlines of the pandemic, nurses are demanding greater protections for themselves and their patients. Union officials speaking on the call accused hospitals and health systems of cutting corners throughout the pandemic, putting patients, nurses and their families at higher risk of infection.
"This year and a half has been a traumatic one for nurses," said Khadijah Kabba, collective bargaining director for National Nurses United.
Hospitals ignored nurses' calls for increased staffing and training and clear protection protocols during the emergency, with deadly consequences, she said. In Cook County, Illinois, nurses were told to wear the same personal protective equipment for days from a box labeled "for single use only," she said.
During this time, HCA, the most profitable hospital chain, posted earnings of $3.7 billion in 2020, she noted.
"This pain fuels a righteous anger," Kabba said. "We have seen what your policies and greed have led to. Now we must put patients before profits."
At bargaining tables this year, nurses will demand safe staffing, optimal PPE, and job protections in the event of illness from diseases including but not limited to COVID-19, Reding said.
HCA has collective bargaining agreements covering 10,000 nurses in five states up for renegotiation this year, according to NNU. Contracts expired at the end of May for HCA hospitals in Florida, Kansas and Missouri and will expire on June 30 in Texas and Nevada.
The largest U.S. for-profit hospital chain, HCA, faced labor disputes last year that included a weeklong strike among nurses at Riverside Community Hospital in California represented by the Service Employees International Union. The nurses threatened to strike again in December, along with nurses from two other Southern California HCA hospitals, though they reached a deal and averted the strike just before Christmas.
In North Carolina, 2,000 nurses at HCA's Mission Hospital in Asheville are currently bargaining for their first employment contract after successfully unionizing last September in a state with the second lowest union membership rate.
Concerns about staffing levels were a main reason nurses at the hospital pushed for union representation.
Officials at HCA, CommonSpirit and Sutter were not available for comment by time of publication.
National Nurses United is the country's largest nurses union, with 170,000 members across the country. The union achieved a second election victory in the past year when about 2,000 registered nurses at Maine Medical Center voted to join NNU in April.
The union is also currently lobbying for several bills in Congress, including the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, and the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would penalize employers for tactics to discourage workers from unionizing. Both passed the House but need Senate approval.