Photo: Thousands of nurses and other healthcare workers went on strike to improve staffing levels and patient care at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.
By Audrey Hellenbrecht
Last month, striking nurses at the Swedish Medical Center (SMC) in Seattle, Washington were finally able to return to work after thousands were locked out at the end of a three-day strike.
Over 7,800 nurses and other healthcare workers went on strike on January 28 against Swedish SMC, closing two Emergency Centers. When the workers attempted to return to work on January 31, most were illegally locked out of the building and told they could not return to work.
The strike was called by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199NW, which represents the healthcare workers employed across seven different SMC campuses. The strike was called primarily to address dangerous understaffing along with low wages and a lack of safety precautions for workers across the hospitals. Kale Rose, a labor and delivery nurse and a member of the union’s negotiating team, reported that there were not enough staff to check IV levels, administer medications, manage blood loss, or transfer patients.
“We’re bleeding nurses; we’re bleeding techs and social workers,” said Laura Wood, a social worker at SMC. “The staffing ratios are completely unsafe here.”
“We have to come in on our days off constantly to take care of patients,” said Susan Walker, one of the striking nurses. “It’s very disruptive to your life, but you feel sorry for your coworkers so you bite the bullet and come in.”
These issues are compounded by the global spread of the coronavirus, which has now penetrated the US. All of the necessary attention that must be paid to cleaning and sanitizing hospitals has been undercut by inadequate staffing, forcing fewer workers to cover larger areas and drastically increasing the risk of infection.
SMC was acquired in 2012 by Providence, a large non-profit health system that owns and operates 51 hospitals and 1,085 clinics across Alaska, California, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas and Washington. Since acquiring SMC, Providence has aggressively cut costs wherever possible to maximize profit at the expense of both workers and patients.
Providence has laid off workers, lowered the wages of many that are left, and outsourced SMC’s Human Resources department to the Philippines, which now hosts more call centers than any other country in the world. Last year, Providence made $270 million in the first nine months and has $11 billion in “unrestricted cash and investments” according to a 2019 financial statement.
The three-day strike was initiated within legal parameters, with workers giving Providence 10-day notice. Over the course of the strike, the nurses picketed outside the hospitals carrying signs that read “Patients Before Profits” and “United For Our Patients.”
Providence’s response to the strike, however, was to spend over 10 million dollars on five-day contracts, hiring replacement staff and security with body cameras. The company that put workers in danger by ignoring security concerns has now only hired security to protect them against their striking workers. They understaff and even outsource departments, but are willing to spend millions to temporarily replace the striking workers.
Upon ending the three-day strike and attempting to return to work, Providence locked the nurses out of the hospitals. The nurses and medical staff received calls, voicemails, and texts from the outsourced HR department informing them they have been temporarily replaced. This lock out lasted the remaining two days of the scab’s contracts, with several groups of workers being turned away and told that they were not needed that day upon entering the building.
While nurses and healthcare workers at SMC sacrificed their own wages to improve patient care and ensure adequate staffing levels, Providence used it as an opportunity to retaliate against the striking workers. Providence has pointed to the five-day contract with replacements as the reason for the lockout, but knew that the strike would only last three days and have taken further action to squeeze the already underpaid and overworked staff even further and discourage any future collective action.
The nurses and medical staff at SMC have also suffered the limitations of a legal strike under the leadership of a bourgeois union like the SEIU, which itself had a no-strike clause in their collective bargaining agreement until June 30, 2019. Reformist unions will often claim to offer additional protections against unjust firings, but stopped pushing further in the face of the lockout.
The legalist unions fear rebellion and reject the creativity and militancy of the masses, operating instead with the purpose of settling the dispute as quickly as possible in order to keep the subjection of labor to capital unchallenged.
Nationwide, about 90% of nurses are women, and Seattle is no exception. The poor working conditions and low wages that these nurses experience are compounded by the fact that this division of labor by gender allows for further exploitation of women workers. The nurses’ mobilization for better conditions for themselves and for their patients illustrates the strength and potential of women workers organizing in the fields that bourgeois society has funneled them into.
Providence’s acquisition of Swedish Medical Center is part of a larger trend towards the monopolization of the healthcare industry. It is characteristic of imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, for industries to become centralized into fewer and fewer hands until they form a monopoly. The medical system in the US is nothing more than a profit-driven industry and hospitals will continue to consolidate under giant companies as long as this is the case.
Although the contract negotiations opened back up in mid-February, SMC and Providence show no signs of budging on the workers’ demands. SEIU can help bring employers to the negotiating table, but ultimately they cannot serve the working class in the same way revolutionary leadership can, uniting the economic struggle with the larger political struggle against capitalism and forcing employers to meet worker demands with militant class struggle.