On May 6, more than 2,000 unionized workers organized by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) marched out of Mercy Health St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, to demand safe staffing, safe working conditions for all hospital workers and the right to bargain fixed health care rates. The striking workers include registered nurses, technical unit employees and support staff.
The workers overwhelmingly voted to go on strike with the union’s registered nurse contingent, voting 90 percent in favor on October 29, 2018, which is the same day the current contract expired. “The main reason why nurses went on strike is because of patient safety,” said Barb Mazur, a registered nurse and strike captain of UAW Local 2213 Professional Registered Nurses. Mazur is concerned about their current nurse-to-patient ratios and working long shifts that put patients in danger. “Our concern is that we’re being overworked and extended to longer hours. The major focus is patient safety. We’re standing up for our patients.”
From the picket lines, it’s evident how much support the strikers have from the patients and community at large. Cars driving by are consistently honking in support to the point where it’s difficult to even have a conversation. Support is even coming from within the hospital. “We have a lot of patients that have verbalized that they are supporting us…. One patient walked out holding a UAW sign,” Mazur told Truthout.
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There has been an outpouring of labor support coming not only from Toledo, but from Ohio at large and other states as well. “We have the ONA [Ohio Nurses Association], the MNA [Michigan Nurses Association], AFSCME [American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees], the Ironworkers, the fire department and others,” Mazur said. “People are coming to drop off water and food; and from the bottom of our hearts, we appreciate it.”
According to the Toledo Blade, the hospital planned to continue operations of the facility during the strike by bringing in workers from other Mercy Health facilities in the area. Mercy Health claims that the UAW leadership is stalling negotiations by trying to win benefits that only help selected union leaders, “We are disappointed that as we continue to work to find a solution, the interests of [a] few are being held above the interests of all.”
When it comes to ending the strike, Mazur put it plainly as to who is stalling negotiations. “Nurses want to see a contract that we can pass,” she said. “[Hospital management is] not coming forward in good faith. We need to stand up. We need to get caps on hours worked per week. That’s what we need for nurses so we can keep our patients safe.”
Susan Pratt, a registered nurse and president of Local 2213, sees this strike as a way to make sure that workers’ voices are heard when it comes to protecting their patients. Pratt wants hospital staffing that is based on what is best for the patients. One of the many issues facing workers, and especially nurses, is working long hours.
“We proposed that once nurses were considered impaired (due to exhaustion) that they had to take 24 hours off…. The hospital flat-out refused it. They said they were not willing to do it and had a lot of excuses,” Pratt told Truthout. “We just want to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Health care costs have been an issue for hospital workers as well. Pratt told Truthout that the hospital wants total control of the workers’ health care. “There is also a component with the health care that they can change it [the cost] at a whim. We’ve never had that in our agreement either.”
For Pratt, just being on the picket line itself is a struggle.
“We’re caregivers. For us to walk out, many of us struggled with that, but we have to look at the bigger picture. It’s not unique,” Pratt said. “Lots of hospitals are struggling with this, but many workers don’t have a voice, and that’s one reason I joined the UAW. I saw a decline in how we could take care of our patients and the union was a way to fight for my patients.”
Pratt also made the connection between the nurses’ strike and the wave of teacher strikes that have rocked the country. “We both feel our jobs are a calling. When our patients don’t have money for their medication, we pass around the hat and get them their medication. Teachers are the same way with their students. They’re both very important jobs, and both primarily women’s jobs. I don’t know if that’s part of the problem … we don’t value these workers the same as we would with a male-dominated profession.”
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders tweeted in support of the strike:
Nurses and staff at Mercy Health St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo should not be working 20-hour shifts without decent health insurance, while the CEO of Mercy Health makes $1.7 million.@UAW nurses and staff in Toledo deserve fair pay, health care and work schedules.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) May 10, 2019
As encouraging as it is to see politicians like Senator Sanders give his support to the strike, Pratt knows that the power is in their community, and that they still have a lot of work to do. “I’m really looking forward to getting back to work and providing the care that we do…. We’re a really tight-knit team and it takes all of us to accomplish what we need to for the patients. We’re going to make change by supporting each other.”
As of May 15, the strike is still ongoing, and the union is planning a public picketing event for Saturday, May 18, for all supporters of the strike.
Those outside of Toledo interested in supporting the striking workers can sign this petition.