Temple Hospital Strikers Defeat Gag Rule, Union-Busting Demands
by John Leslie / May 2010 PHILADELPHIA—
On April 26, nurses and medical technicians at Temple University Hospital approved a new contract to end their militant 28-day strike. The strikers succeeded in defeating the most objectionable provisions sought by Temple—a “gag rule,” an open shop, staffing changes, and staggered expirations for the union contracts of the two bargaining units.
The provisions of the settlement include a 2% wage increase in July, followed by a 2.5% increase in 2011, and 3% in 2012. Workers will also receive tuition reimbursement for up to six credits for dependents. Cost of health care will increase; with members choosing among three plans, paying either 10%, 20% or 25% of the premium. The differential for working weekends will remain at $5 per hour. Shift differential for night work will be 13% of base rate. The pension contribution by Temple will remain at 8.5% of salary.
On March 31, nurses and technicians at Temple University Hospital went on strike after working without a contract for six months. The 1500 Registered Nurses and professional staff, approximately 1000 of them RNs, are represented by the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP).
In preparation for the strike, the union mobilized members and community supporters, taking the fight to various places around the city. After the strike began, workers and supporters protested outside of a City Council meeting, outside the luxury condo of Temple President Ann Weaver Hart, and outside a dinner for Temple University bigwigs.
On the Temple University campus, student supporters, organized by the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), held a “die-in” on a main walkway. Wearing t-shirts reading “my nurse was a scab,” the students “died” for several minutes during a class change while supporters leafleted passersby. Later, the students marched to the administration building to condemn the administration for its complicity in strike breaking.
Strikers received aid and statements of solidarity from the National Nurses Organizing Committee, the California Nurses Association, and from local unions. A statement of support from filmmaker Michael Moore was read to picketers outside the hospital, which stated: “It is an embarrassment that an otherwise fine institution of higher learning would treat its own nurses and other health professionals with such contempt. Exactly what lesson is Temple teaching to its students when they attack the nurses at their own hospital? That we should beat up on the very people who have dedicated their lives to helping us when we get sick?”
Temple used the services of a union-busting outfit, Healthsource Global Staffing Inc., to hire scabs, offering them up to $10,000 a week. Reportedly, replacements were working 12-20 hour days and up to several days a week.
The dangers of using overworked and unqualified scab labor was illustrated on April 18 when a critical-care patient walked out of the hospital twice to ask picketers for assistance. This patient had to unhook herself from monitors and walk past scab nurses to get to the picket line. There were also reports, by family members of patients, of unsanitary and unsafe practices by replacement nurses; such as incorrect medicine dosages and touching patients without gloves.
The issues in this strike were more than just wages. Temple management had demanded an end to tuition reimbursement for the children of nurses and technicians. Traditionally, the children of Temple hospital have gone to Temple University for free or received $7000 a year to attend another institution. On March 9 2009, Temple unilaterally ended the tuition reimbursement program. In January 2010, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board ruled that Temple had acted in bad faith and ordered the payment of all money owed to employees.
Temple also demanded that the agency shop fee paid by non-members be discontinued, effectively making the hospital an open shop. This proposal was a knife aimed right at the heart of the union. Another contentious issue was a proposed “gag rule” that would forbid union members or staff from publicly criticizing Temple. This would have made union advocacy for patient safety illegal under the contract.
Management also insisted on its right to dictate staffing levels and assignments at will, sometimes with nurses being switched from patient to patient in mid-shift. PASNAP repeatedly pointed out that the hospital is understaffed and that patient safety is their number one concern.
The staffing situation at Temple Main was exacerbated when the Temple system closed the Northeastern Hospital, laying off hundreds and leaving a vulnerable community without an Emergency Room. After the closing of Northeastern, the number of patients coming to Temple Main increased by more than 10% without any additional staff being added to the payrolls there.
PASNAP’s motivated and mobilized membership, its effective community relations, and its disciplined and high spirited picket lines contrasted with the lack of preparation for the SEPTA transit strike that took place in Philadelphia last winter. The Transport Workers Union gave practically no advance warning or explanation to workers or the public. The result was a lack of public support for the strike, especially since thousands of working-class commuters were stranded as buses and subways stopped service on the first day of the strike.
Temple strikers won a decisive victory over the hospital. Such a victory will be a shot in the arm for union organizing in health care generally and for the Philadelphia labor movement. Speaking at an April 24 union rally, Thomas Paine Cronin, former president of AFSCME DC 47, said: “This is not just your struggle, this is our struggle. Anybody who cares about decent health care, anybody who cares about education, free speech, decent work rules, and the right to join a union—this is their struggle.”
It is possible to win victories in unfavorable political and economic conditions. PASNAP based its strategy on a member-driven approach. They have shown what can be done when the business-union model is rejected. This is a victory that should inspire us all.