WORCESTER — A tentative agreement has been reached between St. Vincent Hospital and the Massachusetts Nurses Association, according to both sides early Friday evening, signaling a potential end to one of the longest nurses strikes in state history.
If the agreement is ratified, all striking nurses will be returned to their prior positions while hired replacement nurses will also keep their position, possibly resolving the biggest roadblock to ending the strike which entered its historic 285th day Friday.
Around 700 nurses have been on strike since March 8.
Additionally, the decision to allow striking nurses to return to their original positions followed careful consideration of the clinical challenges expected this winter throughout Massachusetts, and the resultant need for as many nurses as possible to provide quality care for the community.
In a St. Vincent news release, the hospital claims it considered the clinical challenges expected this winter throughout the state in its decision to return striking nurses to their old jobs. The hospital said there is a need for as many nurses as possible to provide quality care.
“The new contract will provide enhancements for patients and our team, and we are glad to finally end the strike and put our sole focus back on patient care,” Carolyn Jackson, CEO of St. Vincent Hospital, said in a statement. “We will be setting a new tone at Saint Vincent Hospital: We are one team with a common purpose. Not striking nurses versus replacement nurses. Not nurses versus management. One team united behind the principles of professionalism, excellence, accountability, and compassion.”
In a statement from the MNA, the union also confirmed that an agreement had been struck. The agreement was reached after two weeks of discussions with federal mediators, and finally settled at an in-person session held Friday, which was mediated by U.S. Secretary of Labor and former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, according to the union's press release. Walsh had been rumored to be getting involved in resolving the strike.
Kennedy helped settle 2000 strike
A previous strike at St. Vincent Hospital was settled in May 2000 after nurses and hospital officials took part in five hours of negotiations in the Washington, D.C., office of the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. They announced they reached a tentative agreement to end the nurses' 42-day-old strike.
The agreement comes after two years of negotiations and more than 43 negotiating sessions.
In an interview, Jackson said tentative agreements exist for both collective bargaining and return to work.
"We are glad that we have been able to agree and are looking forward to bringing a strike to a close," Jackson said.
Marlena Pellegrino, a longtime nurse at St. Vincent and co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said that the nurses will be able to return with their heads held high if they ratify the agreement after 285 "grueling" days through four seasons.
"Our patients are going to get the best care possible with the most respect and dignity, and we have been anxious to get back to work, get back to what we call our home, our hospital," Pellegrino said. "To stabilize and start the healing process and start caring for the community again. We're just overcome with emotion and just a lot of pride for what we've done, standing up and advocating for our patients and honoring our profession."
Pellegrino said that the nurses will remain on the picket line until the agreement is ratified. She hopes the agreement can be seen as sign throughout the state and the nation that there is power in solidarity.
Time to move forward
The nurses have exchanged heated statements with Jackson and St. Vincent management throughout the strike, with signs directly calling out Jackson being a common sight on the picket line. Both Jackson and the nurses emphasized it was time to move forward.
"The important thing is to ensure that we have as many nurses as we can to make sure that we're able to take great care of our patients and continue that tradition." Jackson said. "We also need to make sure that we are able to build, able to work together in a collaborative manner and make sure regardless of what your role was during the strike, that you work well with your peers and that we're able to put things behind us and move forward as a team."
"We are all professionals, we know our jobs. We're going to go in there with our heads held high and do our work in the most professional manner," Pellegrino said. "And we know that what's best for our patients is to start the healing process."
The surge in hospitalizations played a factor in the decision to reach an agreement, both sides said.
"We are hurting for beds across our city and state, that patients are waiting for procedures, they're waiting for ICU beds and it's very important that St. Vincent Hospital be able to open the 100 beds that they have closed," Pellegrino said.
"We certainly took into consideration the challenge of capacity throughout the Commonwealth and Central Massachusetts, and it definitely helped drive us to a conclusion," Jackson said.
'Pride and appreciation'
While the union said that the nurses did not get everything the nurses sought, the MNA said it secured important staffing improvements.
“With this agreement we can go back into that building with great pride not just in what we got in writing in the agreement, but for what we have built together as nurses who know they did everything they could for their patients and their community,” Dominique Muldoon, co-chair of the bargaining unit, said. “Once this is ratified by the members, we are now committed to getting back into that building as soon as possible to provide the care our patients deserve.”
Added Marie Ritacco, a member of the nurses bargaining committee: “I have nothing but pride and appreciation for all 700 nurses literally put everything on the line for their patients and this community.
"There are so many of our members who won’t be impacted by this agreement who stood out there with us every day for their fellow nurses, but more importantly for our patients and for the city we so proudly serve."
David Schildmeier, director of public communications for the MNA, briefly expressed his pride for the nurses, "I’m so proud of these people; they never gave up."
Agreement details forthcoming
The union withheld specific details of the agreement until it could be shared with the rank-and file members for a ratification vote. Jackson said she believed the agreement was fair to both parties. Pellegrino said the nurses should see the agreement as a victory.
"In the end, the return to work agreement was about returning all of the striking nurses to their previous position, their previous shift and their previous unit, which is very, very important, not only for nurses but for patients to have the most expert senior nurses in the position that they left before they went on strike, Pellegrino said. "And to send a message that if you do go on strike as a worker, and you stand up for your patients, that you won't lose your job over that."
On Walsh's involvement, Pellegrino said he was a calming voice in the room during the final day of negotiations. Walsh helped to mediate the ideas going back and forth and Pellegrino said he was most interested in caring for members of his home state.
Striking nurses have been a consistent presence outside of St. Vincent for the better part of 2021, when the nurses went on strike in March. For months, the main issue pushed by nurses was a nurse-to-patient ratio of 1-4 for most floors, with the nurses contending current staffing conditions were unsafe for nurses and patients.
St. Vincent has maintained that staffing was adequate and safe, with Jackson saying the MNA was using the strike to enact ratios after a ballot measure mandating certain ratios failed in 2018. The hospital has also spent $30,000 a day for police details and installed cameras outside the hospital, claiming poor conduct by some striking nurses.
More recently, nurses said that most of the agreement had been worked out, but a disagreement existed with the return to work policy, with nurses saying Tenet Healthcare, the owner of St. Vincent, was trying to punish senior striking nurses by not retaining their old jobs. St. Vincent leadership has maintained they wanted to honor their promise to replacement nurses.
Pressure to end the strike mounted as the delta variant of COVID-19 filled up hospital beds, with Gov. Charlie Baker, Mayor Joseph M. Petty and members of the Worcester County delegation of the state Legislature calling for an end to the strike. St. Vincent closed 100 beds due to the strike.
Jackson said the hospital looks forward to opening more beds to accommodate patients, but a plan to reopen is not ready yet as the hospital is unaware of how many nurses are returning.
Pellegrino said a potential end to the strike felt surreal after so long.
"It's very hard to absorb what we've gone through for nine months, but actually looking back, it changes you as a person. It makes you a better person, makes you a better nurse, makes you a better colleague," Pellegrino said. "We challenged ourselves to pretty much the core of our being."
Online reaction to the deal Friday night was met with support and congratulations from lawmakers, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who visited the nurses on the picket line in March.