Nurses strike St. Louis hospital: This is all labors fight

ST. LOUIS (PAI) — With the St. John’s Hospital nurses strike stretching on for weeks, the St. Louis labor community turned out in force to demonstrate solidarity behind these angels of mercy standing up for their right to be their patients’ advocates — and to tell the hospital it will not break their union.

But as the nurses walked the picket lines, a larger issue loomed: The hospital’s fight to destroy the nurses union is only the prelude to a larger effort in Missouri to castrate the ability of organized labor to represent its members. And the GOP attempt to destroy Missouri unions parallels that nationwide by George W. Bush and his allies, shown by statements and action by Bush, big business and the radical right.

The 1,200 nurses, members of the Professional Division of UFCW Local 655, struck St. John’s Mercy Medical Center on Dec. 15 over its unfair labor practices. UFCW’s Professional Division represents more than 100,000 health care workers nationwide.

Two separate events in late December demonstrated labor’s determination to rally behind the nurses:

• In the true spirit of the holiday, on Christmas Day several hundred building trades members from dozens of unions spelled the nurses for four hours so they too could spend some time with their families on Christmas. Many of the nurses, who braved below-zero wind chill the previous night on picket duty, were moved to tears when the tradesmen showed up in force.

• More than 500 trade unionists, friends and nurses turned out for a major rally Dec. 21, despite blustery winds and cold, across the street from the hospital to demonstrate community and labor support for the nurses.

“We are behind you 100 percent,” said St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, who led a host of speakers showing local backing and urging the hospital to begin honest bargaining. “Who is the backbone of U.S. health care?” Dooley asked and the crowd responded with enthusiasm, “Nurses!”

“When a major hospital will not sit down with the people who provide the services, something is wrong. You are fighting the good fight for all of us,” Dooley added. St. John’s hit Dooley for not hearing its side. “I don’t cross picket lines,” he said.

A key issue in both December events was the implicit effort by St. John’s Mercy Medical Center, run by the Sisters of Mercy Order, to break the union. St. John’s is the only private hospital in Missouri to be organized.

“That fact sits like a ‘cancer’ to other hospitals who are scared to death that success at St. John’s would encourage their nurses to organize to win a voice in patient care and decent wages and benefits,” said Local 655 President Jim Dougherty.

“This is all labor’s fight, let no one mistake that,” said Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 Business Manager David Zimmermann while walking picket duty Christmas Day. “This hospital is part of a new effort in our community to break our unions. Look at the grocery strike last year, then the Machinists strike at local car dealers and now the nurses.

“They couldn’t win the first two, so they are hoping that they can win this one because they feel the nurses are vulnerable. Let them defeat the nurses, and it’s the beginning of another assault on all our unions,” he declared.

St. John’s RN Mary Becker came out with her husband, Bud, a member of Carpenters Local 5. “It is so nice to know that these people are supporting us. It’s very special for them to come out on Christmas Day. But this is a big fight with the corporate world. They are desperate to break our union,” she added.

“You stand up for your patients’ rights and we’re going to stand up for you,” said Jerry Feldhaus, secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building Trades Council. “The Sisters of Mercy show little mercy. When they put dollars in front of patient care, that’s wrong.”

Ed Finkelstein writes for the St. Louis Labor Tribune.