Buffalo Health Care Workers Are on Strike for Better Wages and Patient Safety

More than 2,000 health care workers — including nurses, technicians, clerical workers, and custodians — at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York have been on strike since October 1. Similar to other health care workers around the country, the striking workers’ main demand is improved staffing ratios to allow for safer care for patients. Workers are fighting for higher wages to attract qualified staff. They also want to prevent their health plan from being converted in to a high deductible plan.

Catholic Health System (CHS) owns Mercy Hospital. It also owns other hospitals around the area. The striking workers at Mercy Hospital belong to the Communications Workers of America (CWA). They originally planned to strike with Kenmore Mercy Hospital and Sisters of Charity Hospital. As reported by Labor Notes, “recognizing the potential strength of bargaining together against the chain, Locals 1133 and 1168 sought to coordinate the expiration dates of their contracts and force a master agreement in the last round of negotiations in 2019.” CHS tried to push back against this tactic, and a no-strike clause was eventually agreed to for two out of three of the hospitals, leaving Mercy Hospital as the one location able to strike on behalf of all three.

Although negotiations were supposed to begin in the middle of last year, health care workers agreed to delay bargaining during Covid-19 as the hospital claimed to be struggling financially — despite the CEO’s $2 million per year salary. The union health care workers accepted a temporary contract extension that gave them a half-percent increase for the year. Despite these sacrifices, hospital management continues to refuse to provide the health care workers with what they need. Hospital management’s proposals do not go nearly far enough: They proposed to add 250 new positions, similar to a proposal made back in 2016, which did nothing to resolve staffing crises.

Management Lies

It is obvious that CHS management wants workers to blame the union and the CHS management for the lack of a contract. This is a recent interview with local press, CHS CEO Mark Sullivan stated he was optimistic a deal would be reached, but “only CWA can end the strike.” Nurses Left Voice With According to hospital officials, when they first announced their strike plan, they tried to frame it as workers abandoning patients. They also sent out press releases to the community.

Health care workers are aware of the hypocrisy of this rhetoric and know that they care more about their patients than anyone. Workers put their lives on line throughout the pandemic — the striking health care workers created Covid-19 Memorial Walls around each of the picket areas commemorating both those who became ill and those who lost their lives during the pandemic’s peaks — and were called “heroes” when the label could be used as propaganda by management. Workers were even given “healthcare heroes” shirts from CHS, but now, they say they’re seen as “zeroes” and are told they are “abandoning” patients. These claims of abandoning patients are especially ironic because, as one nurse pointed out, not only are these striking health care workers the ones who actually care about patient well-being — hence their resistance to the continual drive to cut staffing and costs to increase profits — but the hospital’s CEO, Mark Sullivan, who makes between $1.5-2 million a year, was planning on abandoning contract negotiations midway for vacation to Europe.

It appears the hospital’s rhetoric backfired, as there has been an outpouring of community support, with many residents of the neighborhoods around the hospital putting union signs in their front lawns. The two other hospitals have health care workers who are not currently on strike. They have been raising money at Buffalo Bills games, and other community events to support the union strike fund. Although health care workers want to return to work, they are unwilling to accept poor working conditions that result in poor patient outcomes. Contrary to CHS’s claims, health care workers actually care so much about patients that they are willing to strike to see their demands met. They refuse to be forced into poor contracts that will ultimately endanger patients’ health.

The Hospital System’s Response: Scabs and Security Firms

Those who run hospital firms like CHS know what the threat of striking and winning demands could mean for other hospital systems in the area or the country, so instead of simply meeting the health care workers’ demands, they continue to resist. CHS has hired Huffmaster, a global parasitic, blood-sucking anti-strike firm, to provide security and scabs. Their website, “Huffmaster is a master staffing agency for healthcare, security, and other industries. Specializing in rapid strike staffing, we keep business in business.” Huffmaster advertises for job fulfillment and provides housing, travel, and meals for scabs in order to break strikes. As WNYLaborToday.com reportedCHS is paying Huffmaster $100 to $150 an hour for these scabs and $45 per day to cover their meals. However, they are unwilling to pay their regular unionized employees as much. Even the pay for the X-ray technicians, one of the higher-paid positions among the striking workers, only reaches $80 per hour — far less than the scabs are being paid.

Huffmaster is trying to claim the title of one of the worst companies on the planet. They not only provide scab health workers but also violent security personnel. Mercy Hospital’s health care workers were a shining example. Left Voice Reporters video footage and photos showing Mercy security personnel are the same security as those who were hired to break into the building Nabisco strikeWorkers were brutally attacked. The New York State Attorney General Letitia Jam has issued an injunction stating that the company is not licensed to work in New York State. However, as of October 21, Left VoiceHuffmaster security guards were still on the hospital premises, protecting the scabs and using fake badges for their company logo. Buffalo police, in coordination with the drivers of the taxis, were also present.

CHS CEO trying to deflect: CEOs Gonna CEO

In the early days, CEO Mark Sullivan said healthcare staffing is a struggle across the nation, not just at Catholic Health: “One in five healthcare workers, since the pandemic has started, has left healthcare. This is not a Mercy Hospital staffing problem, and this is not a Catholic Health staffing emergency. It is a national staffing shortage. Healthcare, overall, is broken.” And he’s right: Health care is “broken,” but not because of the workers. Rather, healthcare is broken because under capitalist health care, the primary goal is to maximize profit from people’s bodies. Everything else is secondary. including patient careThe second is secondary. Therefore, under this model, it becomes logical to cut costs whenever possible — for example, by decreasing staffing ratios. Because they are tired of working for a system that doesn’t care about patients and puts money above people, many health care workers have left the sector. Many workers join their workplaces to help others. However, they soon discover that the system does not prioritize this goal.

Health care is “broken” because the system as it stands was never meant for the maintenance of health for health’s sake — instead, its origins lie in racism, White supremacy, and maintaining worker wellbeing just enough to be tools of labor. In some respects it isn’t “broken” but functions just how CEOs like Sullivan — along with the heads of other sectors of the medical industrial complex such as insurance companies, device manufacturers, and pharmaceutical companies — want it to, as they have the main same goal: profit maximization at all cost. They are able to work in a way that maintains a destructive healthcare system while the actual maintenance of well-being and health remains secondary. Since a CEO like Sullivan can’t say “I am horrible and part of upholding a horrible system,” he must resort to a refrain like “healthcare is broken” to misdirect the public gaze. Executives like to pretend everyone is “on the same team” wanting to care for patients, but this is not the case. CEOs like Sullivan are a hindrance to adequate care.

It Isn’t Just Healthcare

As the health care system continues to exploit workers and cause harm to patients, health care workers are trying to change this dynamic. Mercy Hospital and the 24,000 workers that make up the 24,000 workers have found relief. voted to authorize a strike at Kaiser PermanenteThe nurses are also there St. Vincent’s Hospital in Massachusetts — who have been on strike for 7 months and counting — are rising up. These workers are an inspiration to all workers in the United States. Mercy Hospital workers could set an example for other workers by fighting for better staffing ratios, and a better system of health care. A triumph for Mercy health care workers is a triumph for health care workers around the country and for the growing uptick in labor militancy many are calling “Striketober.”

At the same time, the health care workers at Mercy Hospital are fighting a dynamic that isn’t just exclusive to health care. Companies are trying to drive down wages and cut benefits, as well as force workers into worse working conditions in an attempt to increase profits. It doesn’t matter if it is striking workers at John Deere? the film and television workers threatening to strike with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union, oil workers with ​United Metro Energy Corp. (UMEC)The striking workers at KelloggMany are saying enough, whether it’s the many other workers who are rising up or the thousands of others. The country is only possible because of the hard work of the working class. Workers must unite and organize to combat the system that puts profits ahead of all else.