St. Peter’s Hospital workers on strike

News Nonprofits

Last Monday I left work and drove to St. Peter Hospital. As I parked my car I wondered where the rally was. No problem – I followed the sounds of guitar music and cheering filtering through the damp cedars. As I stepped onto Ensign Road I found a festive crowd of over a hundred men, women, and children standing in the parking and bike lanes waving signs and cheering the musician who was just finishing. Dressed in white ponchos and SEIU purple the crowd was in high spirits and oblivious of the slowly drenching drizzle. Behind the stage a purple sign declared “United for Affordable Care”.

These were St. Peter workers and members of SEIU Local 1199. Normally they would be serving meals, moving patients, preparing instruments, or cleaning the hospital. On that rainy Monday they had walked off the job on strike. Their complaint hadn’t changed from when I talked to them in January (see OPL Issue…). In the middle of difficult negotiations, and working without a contract, Providence St. Peter had imposed a new set of health insurance plans. Workers were seeing the paychecks shrink and medical costs climb. They had had enough, and in early March gave notice to St. Peter that they would strike.

Mingling with the crowd, I met Tumwater Councilwoman Nicole Hill. I asked her why she was there. “This is the county’s second largest employer. If people can’t spend money in the community it affects us all.” She explained she’d been following the negotiations for many months. “I didn’t expect things to go this way. I support the strike because Providence got it wrong.”

As Hill left me to address the crowd, I met a St. Peter worker named Abbey Bruce – a vibrant red-haired young woman with an earnest smile. “I’m a C.N.A.” she said. “I do vital signs, and help patients walk and use the bathroom.  My husband has cystic fibrosis and with the new health plan my husband’s treatment costs went up $400 a month. I did the wellness tests, but the bonus is not enough to make up for the losses.” She keeps smiling but there are tears in her eyes. “I don’t like feeling like I’m letting him down. He works and I took a second job.” She expresses appreciation for the support from local leaders. “Everyone seems to understand that a hospital should provide good health care to its employees.”

In the crowd I run into Steve Segall, a state employee at DSHS. “The Local 443 Executive Board voted to support the strike” he explains. “We want health care workers to be healthy. There are bills in the State Senate to do to state workers what St. Peter is doing to their employees. We need to stand with these employees and fellow union members.”

After more chanting and singing in the drizzle, the rally ended, strikers headed to a tent for some pizza, and I headed home.

I contacted St. Peter for comments, and their spokeswoman Deborah Shawver directed me to their website. I had a follow-up question: are you declining to negotiate over the health care benefit package? Shawver responded: “We have discussed benefits in many sessions and we have encouraged SEIU to propose other constructive options.   They have not proposed any.”

But at the rally Local 1199 President Diane Sosne had told me of how they worked cooperatively with Group Health to design a health care benefit program. She told me “They wanted to work with the union and redesign the program. We focused on prevention and chronic disease management. We call it ‘value-based health care’. In four years costs have gone up only 4%. We offered the same concept to St. Peter, but they said ‘no go’.”

The striking workers have been holding daily rallies. Reportedly at least ten legislators have participated. I checked in with 22nd District Representative Sam Hunt: “I had a meeting with St. Peter lobbyists last fall, but have heard nothing since.  I wrote an op ed that appeared in The Olympian last week.  I have met with SEIU several times, and their lobbyists give us daily updates.  I was at the hospital at the beginning of the strike and walked the picket line with them.  I stopped by this morning and cheered them on.”

The strike is scheduled to last the rest of this week, and by the time you read this it will be over, at least for now. Local 1199 says St. Peter has made no attempt to contact them. Workers are frustrated that their employer, who they see as “a company making more than $200 million in profit and paying its CEO $3.1 million”, is taking additional health care costs from their modest salaries. Elected leaders are calling for Providence to do better for their employees and for our community. And for now, Providence remains silent.

Comments are closed