Nurses Strike for More Staff at Big Illinois Health Chain
“After COVID-19, they put a sign up saying ‘heroes work here,’ but they sure aren’t treating us like that in bargaining,” said Olga Deschamps, a nurse at AMITA St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, Illinois.
Deschamps is one of 720 registered nurses at the hospital who have been on strike since July 4. The Illinois Nurses Association (INA) has been bargaining with St. Joseph since February; their contract expired May 9.
It’s a battle between David and Goliath. AMITA Health is the largest health system in Illinois, and it’s part of Ascension, the largest Catholic health system in the world. Two years ago the Presence Health system, which St. Joseph was a part of, was acquired by AMITA.
The union is fighting for enforceable staffing language in the contract. The hospital doesn’t even follow its own existing policies when it comes to staffing, nurses said—which is why the union wants to have enforceable language in their contract.
“Our main issue is safe patient care,” said Donna Gholson, who’s been at St. Joseph for 30 years. “With COVID-19 we’ve seen an increase in acuity and less nursing at the bedside.” Since AMITA has taken over, Gholson said, they have been focused on the “dollar and the bottom line, and they’ve been taking it out of this community.”
The strike has already forced the hospital to withdraw its demand for concessions around sick pay, a particularly galling proposal given the number of nurses nationwide who have contracted or died from COVID-19. AMITA had also initially proposed a three-year wage freeze, though more recent offers include raises in years two and three.
Throughout the pandemic the union has been critical to ensuring safe working conditions. Jeanine Johnson, a member of the bargaining team, described the fight with AMITA for personal protective equipment (PPE) as “horrendous.” In an April 1 INA press release Executive Director Alice Johnson said, “Nurses have been instructed to re-use their masks for their entire shift or until they lose integrity.” Through the nurses’ collective advocacy, the INA pushed the hospital to properly stock PPE.
NOT FOR PROFIT?
Ascension is one of the largest private health care chains in the U.S., ranked second by number of hospitals, with 151 as of 2018. In addition to health care, the nonprofit conglomerate operates a venture capital fund and an investment advisory firm with $800 million in capital under management. The company also runs over 50 senior living centers across 12 states. With 164,000 employees, Ascension rakes in over half a billion dollars a year in operating revenue and has over $15 billion in cash reserves.
Despite its wealth, the company received a $211 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services as part of the CARES Act, while smaller rural and community hospitals have struggled to survive.
If these names and acquisitions are difficult to track, it’s by design. While displaying the “nonprofit” moniker, these organizations are anything but. Former Ascension CEO Anthony Tersigni led all nonprofit executives in compensation in 2014, when he took home $17.6 million, and he remained on highest-paid lists until his retirement last year. The salary of current CEO Joseph Impicciche is not published information, but while he was a vice president, the most recent tax forms available from 2017 show him taking home $3.4 million.
According to the INA’s calculations, AMITA is spending $5 million per week on scab nurses. Scab nurse agencies advertise $65 per hour along with lodging and transportation to and from their hotel. Johnson has received reports from non-union workers inside the hospital that the scab nurses are “unprofessional” and have been seen sleeping on the job. She’s also heard that the scabs have been asking non-nurses to do care that only nurses are licensed to do, such as tracheostomy care and blood draws off central venous lines.
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“They’ve brought these nurses in from God knows where, four different states, and some of those states are ones where Governor Pritzker said people shouldn’t come in from, due to COVID-19, such as Georgia and Mississippi,” said Pat Meade, a nurse at St Joseph for 34 years and part of the bargaining team. “Are they even testing them?”
AMITA is known for its hostility to unions. “We knew coming into these contract negotiations that it was going to be very difficult,” said Johnson. The health system has 19 hospitals and 230 sites of care in Illinois, but St. Joseph is the only facility where nurses have a union.
Getting a union at St. Joseph was a hard-fought battle. It took a 61-day strike in 1993 for nurses to win their first contract—the second-longest nurses strike in U.S. history. At the time, a St. Joseph VP wrote, "You'll see a union in this hospital when pigs fly." Striking nurses responded by fashioning pigs out of balloons.
Gholson was a recently graduated nurse during the 1993 strike. The day after she was pulled from the medical-surgical floor to work in the intensive care unit—without proper training or preparation—she signed a union card. Meade was also at St Joseph during that strike, working as a manager then. She said trying to run a unit with scab nurses was “awful—you’re trying to manage nurses who don’t know your system, don’t know your charting, don’t know your practices, your order sets. It was a nightmare.”
Despite the July heat, spirits on the picket line are not wilting. Nurses have shade tents, an inflatable rat, and many donations from community supporters—even a water slide for strikers' children!
“Community support has been wonderful, not only during COVID-19 but during the strike,” said Johnson. “People are stopping by and bringing supplies, as they understand our fight is for safe staffing.” A July 8 car caravan to show community support was hundreds of vehicles long. Nurses from nearby Silver Cross Hospital—a non-union facility—have stopped by every day to show their support.
“We are a large profession—if we all stand together, we can accomplish anything,” said Gholson. “We’d have nurse-to-patient ratios in the bag, the sky would be the limit.”
On July 11, INA brought AMITA’s last offer to the membership for a vote. It was rejected by 72 percent. “The nurses have spoken loud and clear. They are demanding staffing improvements with guarantees,” said Meade. “This offer did not go far enough. The staffing crisis in this hospital needs real solutions.”
The strike and negotiations will continue until staffing issues are resolved, the union says.
With the experience of COVID-19, economic strife, and accompanying downsizing in public and private health care institutions, nurses are being forced to reckon with how to get through a tumultuous time. Many health care workers have become interested in unionizing, according to a recent article in Crain's Chicago Business.
The Joliet nurses are showing us how it's done. You can donate to their strike fund here, and follow their union’s news page or Facebook page for updates.
Dennis Kosuth is a registered nurse and a member of both the Chicago Teachers Union and National Nurses United.