Militant Journalism

Spokane, WA: Sacred Heart med center workers strike against ‘disrespectful’ conditions

At 2 p.m. on April 22, about 500 technical workers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000 kicked off what will be an eight-day strike at Sacred Heart medical center in Spokane, Washington. This strike comes after workers submitted a 10-day strike notice to the Providence healthcare system earlier in April, after rounds of unsuccessful bargaining negotiations and after UFCW 3000 filed multiple unfair labor practices to the National Labor Relations Board. The picketing workers saw support from community members as well as the Spokane Firefighters Union, Service Employees International Union, and other medical workers from registered nurses to emergency medical technicians.

The strikers cited below-market pay, eroding medical and dental benefits, as well as perpetual under-staffing and overtime, as key drivers of their struggle. The unfair labor practices filed against Providence include circumventing the bargaining process by directly negotiating with workers, instituting schedule changes in breach of contract, and even revoking access to the hospital the day before the union’s contract vote.

Providence’s refusal to meet the workers’ demands has been seen by many as a slap in the face, including by Keyatti Sayers, an eight-year respiratory therapist at Sacred Heart, in part because the hospital was on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were in the thick of [it]” says Sayers, “because of the Special Pathogens Unit. Patients from California came here, and I was one of those people that accepted them.” Sayers, a combat veteran, compared the effects of death and COVID workloads on the hospital staff to his own experiences seeing post-traumatic stress disorder. “A lot of us caught it. We lost people that caught it.”

Many workers at Sacred Heart left the medical field entirely after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Sayers notes Sacred Heart’s staffing levels never recovered. When asked about the degree of overtime workers were expected to take on, he replied “Two sixteens a week. So two stay-overs or come-in-earlies, or an extra shift…we have a sign-up list for that, consistently, because [Providence] anticipated not having enough people in my department since COVID…it’s still like that.” Other picketing workers shared similar stories, of perpetual overtime sign-ups or daily texts soliciting workers to fill empty day or night shifts due to understaffing. “It’s been three years. Three years of not saying no to overtime.”

In addition to the grueling overtime, Sacred Heart is Spokane’s only Level II Trauma Center, and so its workers must also take on some of the most difficult workloads in the hospital system. Despite this, their pay is substandard compared to surrounding hospitals. “We’re behind Deaconess, MultiCare in [Spokane Valley], even Kootenai,” said Sayers. This combination of low pay, brutal hours, and difficult workload has only exacerbated Sacred Heart’s staffing issues. While Providence has claimed in recent statements that its compensation proposals have been “competitive,” its spokespeople have declined to share any concrete numbers, and workers say those proposals were rejected in bargaining as a “black and white” issue around compensation. “We’re drowning,” Sayers said in his words to Providence. “Compensate us and respect us. That’s it.”

Despite the “disrespectful” conditions that made a strike inevitable, the mood of the pickets on Monday was abuzz with militant energy. “Anybody that honks and supports us,” says Sayers, not long after a fire engine drove near the pickets and blared its horn in solidarity, “anybody that’s walking by and screaming in support…we appreciate that, because this is hard!” The workers, including surgical specialists who are “big money” for Sacred Heart, will continue their strike until April 30, picketing from 5:30 a.m.- 8:30 p.m. every single day. UFCW 3000, energized by this display of worker power, has stated it is prepared to resume bargaining whenever Providence rejoins them at the table. In the meantime, the UFCW encourages community members to attend a solidarity rally to show their support for the striking workers at 7 p.m. on April 24 at Cowley Park.

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