When Nurses Strike, Patients Suffer

Posted by Abby Streu on Wednesday, July 19th, 2017 at 9:36 am - Permalink

By Abby Streu

The healthcare industry is in a volatile state.

Americans are at odds over rising healthcare costs. Some say single-payer would remedy the situation; others favor the free-market solution. Regardless of one’s stance, it’s obvious the general public is concerned for the well-being of patients.

Nurses' unions are adding uncertainty to the issue of patient care. Patients are put at risk because of union stubbornness and selfishness. Nurses are a necessity for sick people. They aid in treatment and recovery, and often go above and beyond what is asked of them. 

Certain nurses unions, however, can be lethal to those that are ill.  Take for example the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA).

On July 12, 2017, about 1,200 nurses from Tufts Medical Center in Boston, MA went on strike for higher wages, a larger pension program and a larger nursing staff. According to an amendment in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), a union in the healthcare industry must report any strike ten days ahead of time, which the MNA complied with. Six days before the strike, the Union had the gall to issue a press release complaining about how reckless the hospital was being for finding replacement nurses to sub for the strikers. In that press release, MNA spokesperson Barbara Tiller commented:

“How can they possibly expect to safely operate this hospital with nurses drawn from all parts of the country, who have no experience with our facility, our systems, or physicians and patient population? There is no way this hospital can function safely under those conditions. It is irresponsible. Instead of issuing ultimatums and spending millions to ignore us, it’s time they listened to us and offered a fair settlement that values safe patient care over corporate profits.”

(On June 27, 2016, 3,300 nurses from Brigham and Woman’s Hospital in Boston, MA planned to strike for a larger workforce, higher wages and more vacation days. All of them were MNA members. They issued a nearly-identical press release, in which a different MNA spokesperson, Trish Powers, was quoted saying the same exact thing as Barbara Tiller.)

Exactly one year after the Brigham strike on June 27, 2017, Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, MA found itself having to defend their choice to hire replacement nurses when approximately 200 of their nurses announced a strike for better health insurance and a larger nursing staff.

Cindy Russo, Baystate Franklin’s president, declared that it was “disturbing that the MNA’s bargaining committee ended negotiations, unwilling to continue discussions today and unwilling to agree to the next bargaining date.” The hospital called the strike “illegal” in a statement it issued to 22News in western Massachusetts, stating that the strike “violates the labor contract between the hospital and the [MNA].” Baystate locked the nurses out for an additional 48 hours, due to needing a minimum contract of 3 days with the replacement nurse agency.

That’s two strikes in two months caused by one nursing union, affecting the patients in the 89 beds at Baystate Franklin and 415 beds at Tufts.

In 2010, the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private non-profit firm, published a study showing that replacement nurses do not make patients any better off than not hiring replacements in a strike. Patient care suffers without the standard nurses who know the hospital. The author of the study, Sarah Wright, explains that lower hospital productivity is associated with strikes, causing increased harm to patients. Her study showed a 19.4 percent increase in patient deaths during striking periods.  

While striking nurses may feel that their employers are cheating them out of compensation or benefits, they’re the ones cheating their patients out of decent care. By choosing to leave work, they are willingly putting their patients at risk. Of course MNA knows they’re doing it—they tacitly admit it puts the patients at risk by publishing these press releases.

The MNA officials claim to be advocates themselves for patient safety, citing their current fight to have the Massachusetts Legislature pass bills to improve the patient to nurse ratio, ensure safer medication administration and safer patient handling.

Maybe MNA organizers should say that to the faces of the patients they’re abandoning the next time they don’t get exactly what they want. It’s possible that an additional 19.4 percent of those patients might be gone when the nurses return from their strike.