St. Joseph nurses to vote next week on possible strike

St. Joseph Medical Center nurses in Tacoma, represented by the Washington State Nurses Association, announced Tuesday that they are gearing up for a strike authorization vote next week.

The voting days are scheduled for Monday (July 15) and Tuesday (July 16).

Ahead of that, a bargaining session is scheduled for Friday (July 12).

“I hope that administration is hearing the nurses and come to mediation on July 12 to settle a fair contract that will recruit and retain nurses and address our patient safety concerns,” said Janet Stewart, a registered nurse and union co-chair with the Washington State Nurses Association, which represents nurses at St. Joseph’s.

The nurses at the hospital have been in contract negotiations for nearly a year with the health system and have participated in 14 negotiation sessions.

Pay and safe staffing levels are among the issues still to be worked out. In a news release issued Tuesday, the nurses cited record profits made by the hospital as evidence CHI Franciscan can do better, a point also made by their union leaders in a recent editorial.

CHI Franciscan, for its part, sees the lack of an agreement yet to be reached as a disconnect between the union leadership and nurses who have rejected two previously negotiated deals, including the latest one in May.

Cary Evans, Vice President of Communications & Government Affairs for CHI Franciscan, told The News Tribune on Tuesday in an emailed statement: “We value our hardworking nurses and share a commitment to provide the safest and highest quality patient care. We have been bargaining in good faith since August last year and have now twice reached agreements with union leadership on highly competitive contracts.

“We return for a third time in good faith to mediations this Friday and sincerely hope to reach a lasting agreement that is in the best interests of our patients, nurses, and the community.”

In an editorial published Sunday, Stewart and Linda Burbank, both registered nurses at St. Joseph’s Medical Center and WSNA co-chairs, wrote: “St. Joseph’s nurses are considering a strike vote, a rare step we do not take lightly. While compensation is part of the discussion, our top priority is safety: for patients and the community we serve.”

“Administrators acknowledge patient volumes have risen but continue to cut staffing despite escalating patient needs.”

When asked about their profits and operating margin, the health system said the figures cited in the editorial and Tuesday’s release were incorrect but did not elaborate.

WSNA, in its release, also said it has recently presented evidence to the National Labor Relations Board in support of unfair labor practice charges brought by the Association against St. Joseph’s.

“We will not tolerate any action by the Medical Center to intimidate nurses who are seeking to raise complaints about staffing levels or the Medical Center’s failure to negotiate in good faith,” Anne Tan Piazza, WSNA Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives, said in the release.

WSNA says that if a strike is authorized, the elected union leadership is responsible for actually calling the strike. It will give St. Joseph 10 days advance notice before the strike to make arrangements for continuity of care, which could include postponing elective surgeries and transferring patients to other medical sites.

The nurses have launched an online campaign asking residents to sign on to a letter in support of their contract negotiations: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/SJMCpetition

Reached Wednesday by phone, Matthew McGuire, an RN at St. Joe, emphasized that safe staffing levels to support patients remained the bigger issue to the nurses than their fight for better pay.

“I understand health care is becoming more of a business and hospitals need to be profitable, but I am hoping management has now seen the nurses have stood firm on safe patient practices and it is a priority for us. This is why these agreements have been rejected.”

He noted some of the hospital’s nurses, mostly on the medical surgical floors, dealing with six patients at a time in a shift.

“The six-to-one ratio used to be uncommon, but now it’s not unheard of,” he said.

He also noted there was less support staff. “It’s called alternative staffing modalities.”

McGuire notes he still loves his job and is hopeful mediation will work.

“I haven’t talked to one single nurse excited about striking.”

But safe staffing levels need attention, he emphasized. “When you have six patients and you’re trying to do patient care plans while at the same time answering call lights where patients who have had knee replacement surgery need to get the bathroom .... something has to change.”

Updates on the negotiations are regularly posted at wsna.org/union/st-joseph-medical-center