Supporting Striking Essential Workers – Eugene Weekly
About 80 hospital workers and supporters stand outside McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center in Springfield, holding up signs announcing a strike for unfair labor practices. As drivers pass 14th Street, many honk their horns in support.
Four hundred workers represented by SEIU Local 49 are without contract with the Springfield Hospital. Union and workers say hospital management is not negotiating fairly and wants to raise healthcare prices without providing living wages and COVID-19 protection – as well as to outsource some of its staff.
On the first day of the strike, October 5, Congressman Peter DeFazio visited to support the workers. He said hospital management is a trend in today’s economy and it’s time to review monopoly laws so that for-profit groups don’t buy hospitals like McKenzie-Willamette and don’t not cut wages and benefits.
“I remember when it was a big community hospital,” DeFazio told the picket crowd, adding that the management has changed over the years as different companies have taken over. The majority owner of McKenzie-Willamette is the Tennessee publicly traded company Quorum Hospital Corp.
The contract between the hospital and SEIU workers ended in August. SEIU represents housekeepers, certified nursing assistants, MRI technicians, respiratory therapists, pharmacy technicians and more.
Workers are on strike because they feel understaffed and experience high turnover, along with a lack of affordable health care and COVID-19 protections, according to a press release from SEIU. Despite receiving $ 4.5 million in CARES law funds, the hospital ignored workers’ demands for competitive wages or a risk premium, the statement said.
“It’s a trend in America – and it’s a sick trend. It’s a trend where Wall Street takes over services that are essential, absolutely essential, to the American people and tries to bleed any profits they can get out of it, ”DeFazio told workers and supporters.
The strike began at 4 a.m. on Tuesday October 5 and continues until October 7. The hospital is still open. The strike was supported by the Teamsters, the local Roofers Union and the University of Oregon GTFF Graduate Employees Union, as well as Lane County Commissioner Laurie Trieger, Springfield City Councilor Leonard Stoehr, State Senator James Manning, City Councilor Eugene Matt Keating and the Oregon Bureau. of the Commissioner of Labor and Industry Val Hoyle.
Before speaking with the crowd, DeFazio said he spoke with the union’s bargaining team. He said they told him that some entry-level positions at the hospital pay less than at Target. Paying workers at low wages is part of the business model that is common in hospitals today, he added.
“They’ve reduced the number of nurses upstairs, reduced what you’re going to do with building maintenance, all the things they do so they can post a higher profit on Wall Street,” says he to the picketers. “The stock goes up a bit, CEOs get bonuses and they go home to their multi-million dollar mansions.”
A SEIU official tells Eugene Weekly that some entry positions at McKenzie-Willamette start as low as $ 13 an hour.
“This is a huge and growing problem of inequity in this country, the people who do the work, who make this country move are not respected. You lack respect, ”DeFazio said.
Housekeeper Gypsy Smith is one of the housekeepers whose jobs could be outsourced to a Texas recruiting agency. Addressing the crowd, she described the hospital’s treatment of workers as “modern day slavery.”
Nicole Pepple, technician in intensive care unit supervision, tells GE that she’s been with McKenzie-Willamette for 10 years. Meanwhile, she says she saw McKenzie-Willamette often pay less wages than workers at PeaceHealth hospitals earn.
“As an employee, we crave respect,” she adds.
Briana Wamsley, who works in the respiratory care program, says she also wants respect from her employer. During the pandemic, she says she has seen more patients die from COVID-19 than anything else in her 13-year hospital career.
McKenzie-Willamette management is trying to increase health care costs for employees by 27%. In the long run, says Pepple, this makes healthcare unaffordable and sends most of their paychecks to insurance premiums, which isn’t what it once was. Years ago, the hospital’s medicare looked like the “upper middle” class, allowing easy medical access in the area.
Rising healthcare costs for McKenzie-Willamette hospital workers means they will have to try to adhere to Oregon’s health plan, DeFazio said GE. “These are not big projects,” he adds. ” It is ironical. For people who work in health care, risk their lives every day during COVID because they are going to have substandard health care plans that are more expensive. ”
McKenzie-Willamette management’s bargaining efforts are a trend in today’s economy, DeFazio said GE, where the “Wall Street Sharks” are trying to make a dime out of everything. To counter this trend, he says Congress must pass the PRO law, which would facilitate the unionization of workers, but would also remedy the increased presence of industrial monopolies.
“We need to look at the antitrust laws with respect to private companies that buy hospitals,” DeFazio said. In July, President Joe Biden signed an executive order which assesses the industries where companies have consolidated their monopoly power and the impact it has on consumers. DeFazio says the Biden administration should put companies that buy hospitals at the top of the list for antitrust measures.
“There are mega-companies that have taken over health care – and they are now buying out doctors’ offices,” he says.
This story is part of Eugene Weeklyseries of features on the labor movement in Oregon, funded by the Wayne L. Morse Center for Law and Politics.