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Three lessons from the 301-day nurses’ strike at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester:
1) Communities and hospitals
Some non-profits like UMass Memorial in Worcester take their community responsibilities very seriously and Worcester is better for it. But nonprofit hospitals purchased by for-profit national companies like Tenet make their communities dependent on far-away decision-makers accountable to investors.
They have little if any accountability to local communities and the services they offer come at a cost not just to some of their employees but to the communities they profess to serve. It is a process made familiar by “big-box” retail stores, but puzzling when local managers of extremely profitable hospital systems like Tenet continually proclaim their dedication to the local community.
During this strike the local mayor and city manager, the state’s two senators, U.S. Rep. James McGovern of Worcester and Richard Neal of Springfield, chairs of powerful Washington committees, spoke out strongly on behalf of the community during this strike. Their voices seem not to have been heard at Tenet headquarters in Texas.
2) Labor unions
When a labor union fights for a voice in its firm, in this case a hospital, it can expect to meet fierce resistance. Some of us — too few — support unions as effective for improving wages, hours and working conditions; the pandemic has made it clear that they do help a lot.
But the St. Vincent nurses went out on strike over long-standing issues of patient safety and medical care, and many of us do not accept the idea that workers — professionals and non-professionals alike — actually share responsibility for their firm and their industry and need to accept those responsibilities, even when it may mean losing your job.
But the nurses’ closest colleagues in health care, doctors, apparently did not agree. In this case St Vincent nurses fighting for better patient care never heard from the vast majority of doctors who send their patients to their hospital. Doctors of the Reliant Medical Group, committed to St. Vincent’s for hospital services for their patients, are the heirs of Worcester’s pioneering community based Fallon Clinic and Health Plan.
Now they too are part of a vast, national, for-profit medical group which claimed that its members had no responsibility in this dispute about patient care in the hospital to which they commit their patients. Like local community power, the social and civic responsibility of the medical profession may be another component of democratic self-government fading into memory.
3) Catholic medical care
Then there is St. Vincent. Catholic Church officials in Worcester were once closely connected to a hospital named after that great saint, a hospital long served by an order of vowed religious sisters, the Sisters of Providence. And the local Jesuit college once conducted a labor school which trained militant union leaders.
But the local bishop and priests seem unaware of those traditions. They were as silent as the doctors during this long, painful strike. That was puzzling as a diocesan priest serves on the St. Vincent “executive team” with responsibility for “mission integration” and he and Bishop Robert McManus serve on the local hospital’s “governing board.”
Silent in public, perhaps they privately offered sound advice based on very pro-labor Catholic social teaching to their Tenet colleagues in Worcester and Houston during the strike. If so it seemed not to make a difference.
In summary democratic self-government is about more than elections and public policy, important as they are. It has to do with working together, in families, neighborhoods, at work and in the marketplace, for the common good of our communities and country. And it requires all of us, when necessary, to organize as the nurses did in order to gain enough power to actually carry out our share of responsibility for our common life.
Thanks to the St. Vincent nurses for risking everything to make this clear. And thanks to the citizens and local and state public officials who stood with them, in public, and learned they had little power to make a difference. Like the local nurses the rest of us had better get organized if self-government is to be a possibility for the next generation.
Worcester has a rich democratic history, the nurses honored that history, and history is still being made right here, but it may not be going in a democratic direction.
David O’Brien is professor emeritus of history and Catholic studies at the College of the Holy Cross.