Philadelphia Hospital Workers Victorious in Strike

After a hard-fought, month-long strike at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, the nurses and technical/professional staff can proudly say, “We won!”

Members of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) ratified a tentative agreement 1,045 to 30 on April 28.

Union members’ determined solidarity and their support from the community, the broader labor movement, and political leaders beat back concessions demanded by the hospital on union rights, wages, and working conditions (see Refusing to Sign Gag Rule, Hospital Workers Walk Out in Philadelphia).

Temple failed to impose its non-disparagement or “gag” clause, an idea incompatible with the legal obligation of health care workers to serve as advocates for their patients. The clause would have prevented union members and leaders from speaking publicly about patient safety issues rising from short-staffing.

The campaign forced Temple to submit to the law and agree to pay members back tuition owed them for the last two semesters, as ordered by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board but repeatedly disavowed by Temple. Dependent tuition benefits were preserved in the new contract, though for half-time, not full-time, credit and only at Temple University.

CONCESSIONS DEFEATED

Most important, the strike derailed the hospital’s considerable efforts to bust the union. Members have been tempered in the fire of battle and are feeling a new unity and strength, having learned firsthand the power of collective action and solidarity. Ninety-four percent of the membership honored the picket lines for 28 days.

They know who their state legislators and city councilpeople are because they have emailed, called, and visited them. They know they’ve won.

The strike defeated the hospital’s demands to eliminate the closed shop and common contract expiration for the two locals, significant issues of union power. Givebacks on weekend and night-shift differentials, call pay, and minimum call times were beaten back.

Nurses won the right to choose 12-hour shifts, new language on overtime preference, and the accrual of a sleep day for some nurses after 16 hours of work instead of 18. The technical/professional staff signed on to new vacation and holiday selection protections, improved bereavement leave, the return to a 40-hour week in the clinical lab, some classification upgrades, and paid conference time for the professionals.

PASNAP ultimately accepted the increased costs for health insurance that Temple had already imposed on the rest of its employees, but rebuffed the administration’s attempt to take this benefit out of the contract entirely. The full impact of the premium hike was pushed back by a year and a half, enabling wage and step increases to partially offset the blow.

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Discussions have already begun about ways to use this step backward to motivate members to redouble our efforts to move single-payer health care through the Pennsylvania legislature.

Temple never saw fit to bargain staff-to-patient ratios with the union, defining staffing as a management prerogative rather than a working condition. Ratio legislation will continue to be a top union priority at the state level.

LESSONS LEARNED

The union did not make the mistake of thinking these negotiations would be like the last ones. Preparation for a long strike began more than a year before the contract deadline. Like employers everywhere, Temple used the financial downturn as justification to demand to remake the power relationship—till PASNAP stopped them.

The union’s democratic structures facilitated mobilizing at the level of the rank and file. Both locals elected a large negotiating committee which communicated regularly with the membership through contract support committee members on each unit and each shift. Bargaining sessions were open to any member, though speaking rights were reserved for committee members.

The strike was strong because people made the decision to strike for themselves, not because someone told them the strike started on this day at this time. People were committed to staying out because they had decided to go out.

Temple did not invent the strategy of demanding wide-ranging concessions; dictating a last, best, and final offer; employing a scab agency to run all operations full speed ahead; and bringing in an executive with a union-busting agenda, no long-term future, and no accountability to the institution.

Other unions from health care to mining are confronting these tactics and reviving the effective methods of the past, like mass mobilization, and creating new ones. Figuring out how to prevent scabs from doing union work in the present legal context will be vital to winning future strikes.


Marty Harrison is a staff nurse and board member of PASNAP’s Temple nurse local.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #375, June 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.