By Tom Conway
USW International President
Alyssa Stout and her 800 co-workers banded together to keep Oroville Hospital open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, working around the clock to save countless lives.
But these union members didn’t stop there. They brought that same unwavering solidarity to the bargaining table earlier this year and won a new contract with safety enhancements and other provisions designed to leave the work force, the hospital and their Northern California community stronger than before.
Stout and her colleagues are among thousands of union health care workers nationwide who are harnessing the collective power they forged during the pandemic to dramatically improve America’s system of care.
“I feel we have more leverage now than we ever did before, just because people realize we’re needed,” said Stout, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9600 and an X-ray technologist at Oroville, recalling how union workers put their lives on the line and pulled their communities through the crisis.
“People realize, in general, now how important the health care community is,” she continued, noting local residents signed petitions, reposted the union’s social media messages and took other actions to support the workers’ recent contract negotiations. “It all kind of trickles down. People want to see us being treated well so they’re treated well. We were fighting for everyone.”
Hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities wrestled with turnover long before the pandemic, partly because they tried to save money on the backs of workers in crucial but long under-appreciated departments such as environmental services and dietary. But nurses, certified nursing assistants and other caregivers couldn’t have saved COVID-19 victims without the contributions of colleagues who sanitized rooms and prepared nutritious meals.
So workers at Oroville stood together for a contract providing significant raises to all union members, underscoring the collective effort essential to operating the hospital and ensuring patients continued access to an experienced, stable work force committed to delivering ever better care across every department.
The contract also establishes a labor-management safety committee that gives a real voice to the front-line workers who best know how to address the hazards they and their patients face every day. Union members provided management with photos documenting cluttered hallways and blocked fire exits, driving home the need for collective vigilance and worker input in a part of the country where a wildfire destroyed another hospital just a few years ago.
“Our safety has to be a priority. Otherwise, we can’t be there for the patients we care about,” observed Stout, noting the challenges of the pandemic fostered greater cohesion and tenacity that union members brought to bear at the bargaining table.
Across the country, other union contracts are yielding similar improvements for workers, patients and their communities.
More than 2,700 nurses and other workers at UMass Memorial Health Care in Massachusetts won significant raises and other enhancements that not only recognize the sacrifices they made throughout the pandemic but will help the system’s hospitals recruit and retain the work force patients need.
Nurses at three Steward Health Care hospitals in Florida achieved protections from unsafe scheduling and the creation of an infectious disease task force in their new agreements, while workers at Kaleida Health in New York successfully fought for wages increases, a health and safety committee and the health system’s commitment to create 500 new positions to address unsafe staffing issues.
And nearly 80 members of USW Local 7798–1 attained management’s commitment to address safe staffing concerns, among other gains, in a new agreement they ratified Monday with Copper Country Mental Health in Michigan.
“I do see a new trend,” said Local 7798–1 President Scott Skotarczyk, referring to the power that pandemic-tested health care workers are bringing to the bargaining table. “Look at what we did in this agreement. We got a pay increase. We got — for our more senior staff — an increase in vacation time. We didn’t give anything up.”
The contract also spells out a procedure for developing timely, effective responses when clients act out, creating safer environments for both workers and residents in the agency’s group homes.
“This is a stressful job,” Skotarczyk said, noting the contract improvements will help to facilitate the stable, experienced work force needed to help clients build more independent lives.
“The more time you spend in this field, the more effective you are,” he said. “I’ve learned over the years what works best.”
Workers at union-represented hospitals have better patient outcomes, more inspections for workplace hazards, and better access to personal protective equipment (PPE), among many other advantages, than their counterparts at other facilities. Now, union members’ successful advocacy for themselves and their patients is fueling a wave of union drives across the health care industry.
More than 800 interns, residents and other doctors at the University of Illinois Chicago formed a union last year, for example, citing the need to band together and fight for the long-overdue resources essential to patient care. Overall, according to new research from the AFL-CIO, 71 percent of health care workers would vote to unionize their workplaces.
“Don’t give up. Don’t back down,” Stout advises health care workers who want to leverage union power at their workplaces.
“We all made it, and we all helped each other,” she said of her co-workers at Oroville over the past few years. “We’re so much stronger together.”