Take On Tenet: Fighting for a Just Healthcare System Embedded in a Just Society

Peace Advocate November 2021

"Nurses strike for patient care against hedge fund" by joepiette2 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

by Sandy Eaton

Twenty-one years ago, Worcester nurses faced off against the Tenet Corporation. Newly organized, they struck for forty-nine days to win a first contract. Then, as now, money wasn’t the main issue. The safety of patients and staff in a profit-driven healthcare system was the nurses’ main goal, while Tenet executives demanded cruel working conditions that threatened patients’ safety and lives. It was all about control of the assembly line into which the delivery of care had been transformed.

Then, as now, a strategy of escalating pressure, finally threatening to go national and mobilizing not only the nurses directly involved but union members and community folks far beyond Worcester, is the winning formula. In 2000, it took forty-nine days for Tenet executives to realize they were beaten. Now this strike, which began on March 8th, has gone on much longer than that. The strikers have remained solid. Labor in the Worcester area and the community at large is supportive. Progressive groups and elected officials have come to the picket line and organized rallies. So a few weeks ago Tenet escalated the fight, clearly pushing to break the strike and smash the union by threatening to replace the striking nurses permanently.

Alarm bells should have gone off throughout Labor circles nationally. But it took the activists and unions of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer to see the issues and recognize the threat. So now we are ramping up, starting with the National Town Hall on June 29th and the targeting of Tenet headquarters in Dallas on July 7th. The pressure on Tenet is mounting as it will try to justify its siphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for pandemic relief to fatten its own coffers and those of its shareholders. But Tenet may not be afraid of elected officials and the threat of Congressional inquiries.

The logical and essential next step in Labor’s escalation in order to win this strike, beat back union busting, push President Biden and Congress to enact the Medicare-for-All bill and fundamental labor-law reform is the full mobilization of the labor movement and our communities. Labor leadership at all levels, but particularly at the national, must use its resources to mobilize the force needed to turn back Tenet’s union-busting drive and reverse not only the forty years of attacks since PATCO but the crippling provisions of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Rich Trumka, the AFL-CIO Executive Council and all union leadership bodies must see both the urgency of this moment and the opportunity. Tenet will not back down without it. The President and Congress will not act without it.

Like a mighty wave, we must roll over this seventy-two-year pattern of being beaten down. Our new normal in this post-pandemic era must include solidarity strong enough to shift the balance of power in this country.

Addendum: I wrote this article on July 5, 2021, attempting to push the envelope beyond the fine article written by Mark Dudzic and Rand Wilson, published July 2, 2021 by Common Dreams and picked up by Labor Notes.

On August 23, 2021, Massachusetts Peace Action hosted and produced this hour-long video on the marathon strike, covering updates on the strike itself and providing rich context. It discusses our healthcare system that provides maximum profits for the few and disjointed, costly care for the many.

The enactment of Representative Pramila Jayapal’s 2021 Medicare for All bill HR.1976 would not only create a single-payer universal healthcare system but create enforceable staffing standards, the issue over which these heroic nurses struck.

And the very structure of labor law is weighted heavily toward employers, allowing the Tenet Corporation to hire “permanent replacements” – the remaining block to settlement of this strike. The PRO Act to restore rights to workers’ organizations sits in Congress. It, like HR.1976, need to leap the filibuster hurdle or bust right through it.

Saint Vincent Hospital and the Worcester community need a full complement of experienced nurses so it can restore full service. The corporation’s blocking of a settlement, especially during a pandemic, is criminal. We need all hands on deck! Walk the picket line with the nurses, spread the word as to the justice of their cause, and consider making a contribution to the strike fund: https://www.massnurses.org

The Tenet Corporation failed to smash the union, so now it is punishing the strikers. This strike is a microcosm of the colossal struggle between those who work and those who appropriate. We must win this one!

—Sandy Eaton is a retired Registered Nurse who has spent nearly fifty years at the bedside. He is the former chair of National Nurses United’s Legislative Council, a Steering Committee member of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer, and a member of Massachusetts Peace Action’s Fund Healthcare Not Warfare working group.