The lines were drawn, the signs were printed, savings accounts had been built up a little. Negotiations had been going on since March 2018. Most of the 1800 nurses represented by the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals preferred not to strike, but when the president of the UVM Medical Center Network walked out of negotiations late in the evening on July 11, 2018 the strike was on. On-duty nurses left their posts and headed to picket lines near the main hospital and its numerous satellite clinics around Vermont. By the time I showed up at the main hospital around 10 AM the following morning, the picket was in full swing. A few hundred nurses and supporters maintained a spirited protest that stretched along a three to four block area near the hospital. Other pickets sprang up at the corporation’s other sites featured fairly large numbers of picketers as well. The endless sound of car, truck and bus horns showing support at the main picket site made conversation a little difficult, but that was fine.
At a solidarity rally near the main hospital entrance (which was guarded by relatively friendly police and security guards on this day), numerous speakers from the union and other unions spoke. Bernie Sanders, who has been quite supportive of the nurses in their struggle, called in from DC to express his solidarity. The local Ben and Jerry’s and numerous other local businesses and community groups provided ice cream, water, and food for the picketers.
The story leading up to the strike is a familiar one. Overpaid executives, over worked and understaffed nursing shifts, a corporation bent on buying up every other hospital they can in the state, and a wage that stands at forty-seventh in the nation when considered in relation to the cost of living in Vermont. In other words, the salaries are 47thin terms of real wages. The arrogance of management has always been apparent, but especially so since nurses organized a union at the beginning of the century. Their drive turned out to be the culmination of several organizing efforts in Vermont, at least four of them at the hospital’s sister institution, the University of Vermont. Ever since then, the unions that did form have been under attack. Each contract negotiation has been even more of a struggle than the one before. Naturally, management’s rationale is that times are tight; a rationale that falls apart each time executive compensation goes up.
The strike was set to last for two days this time around. When asked about this strategy, union organizer Tristin Adie told me that “the duration of the strike was something we debated quite a bit on the bargaining committee. Because a health care strike means leaving the bedside, it is very unusual for nurses to launch open-ended strikes. They tend to go out for 2, 3, or 5 days, sometimes more than once. Since our union had never struck before, we thought it would be pretty tough to get majority participation in an open-ended strike as a first step. Our hope was that pulling off a 2-day strike with strong participation and broad, active community solidarity would help “warm up” our coworkers for future job actions. We’re under no illusions that a 2-day strike will move management in any significant way….. Many nurses were asking me today when we’re going out next, so this experience has helped people see that this kind of action is possible, and necessary.”
As one of the speakers noted in her remarks, this strike is the first labor action in the US since the anti-labor ruling by the Supreme Court in the so-called Janus case. If workers are to have any power in the workplace and if this nation is going to be wrestled back from the corporate and financial powers sucking us dry for their benefit and the benefit of their class, we need to get back in the streets. This was the message of the speakers from across the northeast who spoke at the rally just as it is the message of the strike itself. Most importantly, it is the message that must be remembered if and when management refuses to back down.