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MichUHCAN Newsletter for July, 2000

Nurses Win Strike Against Mandatory Overtime

by Jane Slaughter

"It felt like David vs. Goliath," said RN Debra Rigiero, "-and David won!"

Rigiero helped lead 600 Massachusetts nurses to victory May 11 over the Worcester Medical Center. The hospital is owned by highly profitable Tenet Healthcare Corp., the second-largest for-profit health care corporation in the U. S., with 113 properties in 17 states.

With a six-week strike, the Massachusetts Nurses Association beat back management's demand for mandatory overtime, prompting hospital CEO Robert E. Masher Jr. to say, "We came to the conclusion that we are right at the beginning of a revolution in nursing ... . We believe nurses throughout the United States are willing to work long and hard to fight mandatory overtime."

Key to the victory was overwhelming and active support from local unions and the community, including local politicians.

The nurses joined the MNA in 1998 as Tenet was taking over the hospital. Management stalled for over two years on negotiating a contract, and then provoked the strike with the demand to schedule eight hours of overtime on top of an eight-hour shift.

Four Hours Max, Unless Fatigued

The nurses' counterproposal, which management was forced to accept, was a maximum of four hours of mandatory overtime, no more than twice each quarter. Activists say even this limited overtime is not really mandatory, since nurses will have the right to refuse the extra hours if they are fatigued or ill.

"Most nurses, when asked, will stay if there is a call-in or an emergency," said Rigiero, who is co-chair of the bargaining unit. "But what [management] relayed to us during bargaining was that they were just not going to hire enough people. They were going to staff the hospital with mandatory overtime."

Asked what was the most important factor in beating the overtime demand, Rigiero replied, "The fact that we went on strike. And the fact that of almost 600 nurses a total of around 120 crossed the line. The rest of us stayed."

Community Support

Once the strike started a support group formed, involving the Senior Action Council, religious activists, students from Clark and Holy Cross Colleges, the Global Justice Network ("the same students as in Seattle and D. C.," is how Rigiero describes them) and the central labor council.

Every Wednesday the AFL-CIO's "Street Heat" did mass picketing. The firefighters, SEIU, AFT's health care division, Teamsters, Steelworkers, AFSCME, and many more were active. A huge interfaith candle-light vigil was held in the pouring rain. Media coverage was constant and favorable, including talk radio and letters to the editor.

Groups of organized nurses from across Massachusetts and Rhode Island came to Worcester regularly to picket. The California Nurses Association, which bargains with Tenet facilities in that state, and the American Nurses Association took out ads in the local press, and CNA gave logistical support. ANA organized a picket at the Denver headquarters of U. S. Nursing Corp., the outfit that was supplying Tenet with scabs.

The Right Cause

State legislators from Worcester introduced two bills intended to aid the nurses: one to require more thorough background checks on replacement nurses brought into the state to break the strike, and one to allow patients who did not want to cross a picket line to use their insurance at a different hospital.

"The longer we stayed out the more united we became," said Rigiero. "We went out over the right cause. You can't argue with the fact that no patient deserves a nurse in her fifteenth or sixteenth hour working, especially after she has said, I can't do this.'"

[This article is reprinted from Labor Notes, 7435 Michigan Avenue, Detroit, MI 48210.]

News Bits

Medicaid HMOs in Michigan will get a 10% increase im premiums, according to the director of the State Department of Community Health. The HMOs asked the state for 12% increases this spring. A 10% increase means another $119 million, about what the state hospital association said was needed to repair Medicaid.

Federal auditors said in May that they'll examine Michigan's Medicaid agency and some of the private HMOs providing health care under that program. The audit is in response to complaints that administrative costs for Medicaid in Michigan grew from 1.8% to 11.3% - an increase of $118 million - since the program switched to private managed care in 1997. Shifting funds into administration reduced access to care by driving doctors out of the program and closing hospitals, say critics. The Engler administration said Medicaid is doing fine and the audit is politically motivated.

At least they're clear on the concept: Supreme Court Justice David Souter, ruling in favor of HMOs, wrote that "No HMO organization could survive without some incentive connecting physician reward with treatment rationing." The court found that financial incentives do not make HMOs liable in federal court for failing to put patient care first.

Universal Health Care 2000 Campaign

The U2K Campaign, voicing strong support for universal health care in this election year, now has nearly 300 endorsing organizations across the country, including 26 endorsers in Michigan. To get involved or for more information contact Marge Mitchell (248-477-7911).

Detroit Chapter Meeting

Thursday, July 6, 7:30 PM

This will be a business and open discussion meeting, with no scheduled speaker.

Meetings of Metro Detroit MichUHCAN are held at 7:30 PM on the first Thursday of each month (or the second Thursday if it is necessary to move the date) at the First United Methodist Church of Berkley, on the north side of Twelve Mile Road, third block west of Coolidge.

Statewide MichUHCAN meets the first Friday of every month at 10:00 AM, at the Livingston County Courthouse in Howell. Howell is located just north of I-96 between Lansing and Detroit, a bit closer to Lansing. For more information on these meetings, phone Margie Mitchell (248-477-7911).