On April 3, 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” inside a jam-packed church in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King spoke of the injustice faced by the city’s sanitation workers, who were on strike to protest low wages and unsafe working conditions. On February 1, 1968, two Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death—while taking shelter from the rain–in their defective garbage truck compactor. Two men had died the same way four years earlier, but the city had refused to replace the dysfunctional equipment. A previous strike attempt was unsuccessful, but this time, with support from their union, the middle class in Memphis, and Dr. King, the sanitation workers succeeded in winning concessions.
Lately, the oppressed are more apt to be healthcare workers, like the nurses of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW at Swedish Medical Center. The bargaining agreement between the two parties expired in June and last week, union members voted to strike January 28-30 if proposals from Swedish do not address patient safety and staffing issues. Swedish CEO Guy Hudson said that since the union has filed the strike notice, Swedish has taken their latest offer off the table and won’t bargain until the strike is over. Swedish plans to fly in thousands of contract nurses and caregivers from across the country to fill in during the strike.
The priorities for SEIU Healthcare 1199NW are “safe staffing, workplace safety, recruitment and retention, racial equity and inclusion for all,” according to their press release. Understaffing poses a threat to patient safety and care quality. Documents released by the hospital show Swedish offered to add 200 full-time employees while the union asked to add 2,000 full-time employees. In regard to wages, Swedish offered an “11.25% wage increase over the four-year contract” while the SEIU Healthcare 1199NW asked for “23% over the four-year contract period and that Swedish management transfer authority over staffing decisions to the union.” Many members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW cannot afford to live in Seattle and must commute due to wage stagnancy.
Providence Health and Services affiliated with Swedish in 2012. And after taking over St. Joseph Health system in 2016, the big winners appear to be the top executives. Between 2016 and 2017, Providence CEO Rod Hochman’s total compensation increased from $4.1 million to $10.5 million. Taken altogether, Providence executive’s compensation jumped 64%–from $25.1 million to $41.1 million—following the merger. Yet the following year, Swedish announced 550 layoffs as part of a reorganization effort that Swedish executive Guy Hudson dubbed a “more cost-effective model of care.”
If executive compensation can grow by 64%, why can’t front-line healthcare workers have an increase of 23%? “Members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW say they believe that providing the best quality care is no longer Swedish-Providence’s top priority,” the union said.
Do large hospital systems prioritize revenue generation over patient care? Maybe.
Scientific research is just beginning to evaluate the impact mergers have on patient care. A study published this month in the New England Medical Journal shows that acquisition by another hospital or hospital system is associated with worse patient experiences and no improvement in mortality rates. Of course, this is not altogether surprising.
But, are unions any better for employees and patients? Presumably, yes.
According to a report released by the Economic Policy Institute, workers with a union contract earn 13.2 percent higher wages than non-union peers who have the same education and experience. Unions raise the earnings of women, black, and Hispanic workers, three groups whose pay tends to lag behind that of their white, male counterparts. Unionized workers tend to be healthier because employers are being held accountable for safe, non-abusive working conditions. Unions have a track record of strengthening families by obtaining better leave policies, retirement benefits, and health insurance for their members, while at the same time, safeguarding that employees have due process in promotions, dismissals, or terminations.
Which side are you on?
In my opinion, the nurses and other healthcare workers of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW need and deserve the support of their communities. Nurses save countless lives every single day. Our broken healthcare system cannot be fixed without a safe workplace, proper staffing ratios, equitable wages, and adequate resources to deliver the highest quality care to patients. At some point, our lives will depend on skilled care of bedside nurses; these same nurses who are going on strike to fight for the patients they serve.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that.”
Yes. Let’s keep our attention on the members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW and especially the nurses who are fighting for our very lives.