Striking Ohio Hospital Workers Remain United, Head to Bargaining Table

More than two weeks after walking off the job, the striking workers at Mercy Health St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, remain united. The overwhelming support the workers have received has shown Mercy Health that the hospital workers and the community they serve are united in winning contracts for the three bargaining units that put safety, patient care and good employee benefits first.

Toledo firefighters show solidarity with striking hospital workers.

Shar Brown, a second shift charge nurse of surgery, said she voted down the last offer from the hospital. “They weren’t addressing mandatory overtime, they weren’t addressing nurse-to-patient ratios, and they weren’t budging on our health care and were not putting any caps on that. Which meant that our out of pocket could just escalate to the point where it could just bankrupt all of us, and if we don’t get taken care of, we can’t take care of other people. That is our goal: to take care of other people.”

On May 16, the striking hospital workers, organized by United Automobile Workers, had their largest show of support on the picket line yet, and the union showed that members are meticulously organized and are not backing down.

“I think we had over a hundred jeeps drive by and everyone was lined up [and] down the street…. We’re stronger than we were before,” said an emergency room nurse of six years who identified himself only as Blake. “You could feel energy from everybody. It was definitely a morale booster after the hard weather. This is the strongest we’ve ever been and we’re only going to get stronger from here.”

Mercy Health has brought in replacement workers to staff the hospital, and it was only after the show of strength from the union on May 16 that three more bargaining dates were set for the first time since the strike began, on May 20, 21 and 22. The union has been ready and willing to negotiate, and it’s now time for the hospital to sit down with workers and negotiate in good faith.

“Workers should always stand with workers,” said Bob Lynn Jr., the secretary of the Toledo-area Jobs with Justice and the Interfaith Worker Justice coalition. Jobs with Justice is a volunteer organization that sponsors campaigns around workers’ rights. The group aims to get workers involved in supporting struggles that aren’t directly theirs.

“Corporations put profit before everything and we’re about building community…. Workers and unions brought us [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulations, brought us the weekend, [the] fight to end child labor, all the conditions we enjoy came about because workers stood together with each other,” Lynn Jr. told Truthout.

Jobs with Justice organizers arrive at the picket line.

The strike has also found support from Toledo socialists. “These health care workers are fighting for the rights of both patients and workers that are being endangered by the increasingly rapacious profit-seeking that is characteristic of the health care industry,” said Simon Nyi, the co-chair of the Northwest Ohio Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the United States. “[DSA activists are] out here to do whatever we can to help them win.”

Other supporters explained that community support for a labor strike is not an anomaly in Toledo. “This is a union town. My father was brought up union, I was brought up union, and my son was brought up union,” said Tony Sopko Sr., whose son is a nurse on strike. “We just want a fair package for everyone. Not only for nurses, but for patients as well.”

Tony Sopko Sr. (in yellow shirt) walks the picket line in support of his son.

Tony Sopko Jr., the son of Tony Sopko Sr., has been a registered nurse for five years, and he is an elected leader of Local 2213 and a union steward. “I’m surprised the hospital has let it go on this long,” Sopko Jr. said. “Despite the hospital saying it’s operating normally … from what we hear [on the inside] it really isn’t.”

The hospital’s stated mission is to improve the health and well-being of its community and bring help to those in need, “especially people who are poor, dying and underserved,” according to its website. Mercy workers have taken it upon themselves to make sure the hospital lives up to its own mission and values.

“If I can’t afford to go to a doctor, then I can’t help my patients,” said Kim Timko, an interventional technologist and union steward. “Everyone that’s out here cares about their patients. That’s why we’re here. That’s why I’ve worked here for 30 years. For that mission.”

The uptick of strikes in the past two years throughout the United States, many being led by education and health care workers, has shown this isn’t only a St. Vincent’s or Mercy Health issue. Workers across the country are feeling the impacts of profits being put before communities. Union workers at hospitals and campuses in the University of California system have also gone on strike, for instance. Likewise, New York nurses almost went on strike over similar conditions earlier this year, while Vermont nurses went on strike in February and won significant gains. Internationally, nurses in Ireland also went on strike recently.

A strike supporter holds a sign declaring “Health care is a human right.”

“Whatever gets established here could affect the rest of the state and the whole United States at some point,” said Deborah Harley, who has been a registered nurse for 22 years. “Nurses everywhere are fighting for this. We just have the means to do this because we’re unionized. So hopefully we can win a big win for all nurses everywhere. Everyone has a right to health care.”