As 7,000+ nurses strike in NYC, 'greedy hospitals' told to approve fair deal
The New York City labor movement supports striking members of the New York State Nurses Association on January 9, 2023.(Photo: New York City Central Labor Council/Twitter)

More than 7,000 unionized nurses at two of New York City's largest hospitals began a strike on Monday morning "for fair contracts that improve patient care."

"Nurses don't want to strike," the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) said late Sunday in a statement. "Bosses have pushed us to strike by refusing to seriously consider our proposals to address the desperate crisis of unsafe staffing that harms our patients."

More than 3,600 nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital in Harlem and roughly 3,500 of their counterparts at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx walked off the job on Monday at 6:00 am ET after management declined to approve a new contract with increased staffing levels, improved safety measures, and better pay and healthcare benefits.

"Hospital executives created this crisis by failing to hire, train, and retain nurses while at the same time treating themselves to extravagant compensation packages."

The hospitals' overnight intransigence came after negotiations at several other New York City hospitals yielded tentative agreements prior to the strike start date.

“It is mind-boggling that some of the city's most prominent hospitals recognize the value and importance of our nurses, and bargained in good faith with them, while others have chosen to turn their backs on nurses and, in turn, their patients," New York City Council Member Lynn Schulman, chair of the health committee, said Monday in a statement. "As someone who has both worked and been a patient in a hospital, I can tell you firsthand how vital nurses are to the health outcomes of those they care for."

Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Sunday urged the union and hospital administrators to let an arbitrator settle the contract. Hochul also called on the state health department to enforce nurse staffing requirements, which were enshrined in a 2021 law thanks to organizing by NYSNA members but whose implementation has been delayed due to lobbying by New York City's hospital conglomerates.

In response, the NYSNA said: "We welcome the governor's support in fighting for fair contracts that protect our patients, and we will not give up on our fight to ensure that our patients have enough nurses at the bedside. We call on Gov. Hochul to join us in putting patients over profits and to enforce existing nurse staffing laws. Gov. Hochul should listen to frontline Covid nurse heroes and respect our federally protected labor and collective bargaining rights."

Picketing is expected to take place from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm at Mount Sinai Hospital and three Montefiore locations. Elected officials and labor leaders are set to join striking nurses on the Harlem picket line for a press conference at noon.

"The decision to go on strike is never an easy one, particularly for workers who care so deeply about the patients and communities they serve," said Vincent Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO. "But hospital executives created this crisis by failing to hire, train, and retain nurses while at the same time treating themselves to extravagant compensation packages. Now it's time for them to fix what they've broken."

Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, stressed that "union members across the city and state, from the public sector, private sector, and building trades are united in our support of the nurses represented by NYSNA, who have been put in the unfortunate position of having no other choice than to strike."

"These nurses are dedicated professionals who provide quality patient care under unimaginable conditions including short staffing, which were only exacerbated by the pandemic," said Cilento. "The hospitals' treatment of these nurses is proof that all their words of adulation for their healthcare heroes during the pandemic were hollow. It is time for the hospitals to treat these nurses fairly, with the dignity and respect they deserve, to ensure nurses can get back to serving their communities by providing superior care to their patients.”

The NYSNA, the largest union for registered nurses in the state with more than 42,000 members, made clear that New Yorkers should not delay getting medical care amid the strike.

U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who joined the NYSNA and their supporters on a picket line, called on holdout executives at Mount Sinai and Montefiore to agree to a fair contract immediately.

"If CEOs can double their pay, we can give workers a fair contract," said Bowman. "It's great to hear that most nurses have finally gotten their fair contract here in New York City. But we still have 7,000 as we speak without a fair contract."

"Montefiore, Mount Sinai, it's time for you to step up and get this done," the progressive lawmaker added. "Not next month. Not next week. Today. Right now."

”It should be alarming to all New Yorkers that these contract negotiations have come to this," said State Senate Labor Chair Jessica Ramos (D-13). "Rather than raising wages and ensuring hospitals have safe staffing ratios, hospital management has been granting themselves bonuses and pocketing money that could be used to strengthen our public health infrastructure. Granting these nurses a fair contact is not just a fitting way to express our gratitude, it is the best way to keep all New Yorkers safe and healthy. I stand with NYSNA, and urge management to return to the table with a fair contract."

Schulman echoed Ramos' message, tweeting: "It should never have come to this. Nurses are the frontline of healthcare; they took the brunt of Covid-19 and are now taking the brunt of greedy hospitals."

Michael Lighty, a consultant to the National Union of Healthcare Workers who worked for 25 years with the California Nurses Association, explained last week that "decades of mergers and acquisitions have turned New York's hospitals into profit-oriented corporations" and detailed how "nurses are fighting to change that."

According to Lighty:

Nurses are overwhelmed by a "tripledemic" of Covid, flu and Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV), but the issues animating the struggle are older, rooted in the creation of mega healthcare systems over the past decade. A 2018 New York Timesreport shows that the nation's hospitals have been consolidating at an exponential rate, forming a monopolistic healthcare system. Mergers and acquisitions put market power firmly in the hands of large hospital systems, which hike up prices knowing that insurance companies will pay to keep those facilities in their networks. Insurers then pass the financial burden onto patients. The Times report found that prices for an average hospital stay have gone up between 11% and 54% because of healthcare consolidation.

From 2015 to 2019, U.S. hospitals' net patient revenue increased by $8.6 million per year on average. By 2022, the top 25 hospitals in New York alone averaged an annual net patient revenue of close to $2 billion. These mergers have turned independent community hospitals into "nonprofit" conglomerates—"nonprofit" in their tax status, but profit-centric in every decision that counts. "My hospital, once a humanitarian institution, now behaves like a profit-driven corporate entity," says Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, a past president of NYSNA and an emergency room nurse in the Bronx with 40 years of experience. Sheridan-Gonzalez's hospital has been aggressively acquiring smaller community hospitals for years. "It cuts staff and services to the Bronx, the county with the worst health indices in the state, investing instead in real estate and lucrative endeavors."

Per a Crain'sNew York analysis, "the consolidation strategy has given rise to increasingly flush megasystems of hospitals concentrated in whiter, wealthier areas of the city. During the past 25 years, 20 hospitals have closed across the city, amounting to a loss of about 5,800 beds." In addition to wholesale hospital closures in poor neighborhoods, hospital managers' newfound emphasis on increasing profits has led to other cost-cutting measures such as hiring fewer staff nurses and not buying sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). Those decisions have created unsafe working conditions and extreme burnout. The pandemic exacerbated these issues, and even though many hospitals received Covid relief funding, this did not translate into sufficient PPE, better staffing or improved working conditions.

Instead, the effects of a monopoly health system have continued: high executive salaries and segregated units where VIPs get concierge services and specialty care, while the majority of wards are understaffed. Managers within the conglomerated health system also began to use rising profits to fuel more acquisitions, leading to a cycle of hospitals serving the rich at the expense of local communities which had relied on them.

"Decades of legislative activism and multiple rounds of contract bargaining have yet to create a safe hospital environment for nurses and patients, leaving NYSNA nurses with no alternative but to strike," Lighty added. "To demand and win safe staffing and patient care practices is a vital community benefit. And as potential patients, we all have a stake in their struggle."

New York City Council Member Shaun Abreu, meanwhile, argued Monday that "no one does more to care for New Yorkers than our nurses, and it's time we made sure they get taken care of, too."

"Our nurses have risked their lives and made countless personal sacrifices since the start of the pandemic," said Abreu, "but hospital administrators have no right to take advantage of their willingness to make those sacrifices."

State Sen. Cordell Cleare (D-30), for her part, insisted that "we must always put patients before profits; this statement is doubly true as applied to our beloved nurses, who are instrumental in ensuring that patients are cared for proactively—with dignity and compassion."

"I support the principled movement of nurses... to stand up for themselves, their patients, and our communities," said Cleare. "Health system bureaucrats holding up contract talks and the timely implementation of safe staffing are further exacerbating the nursing shortage that they created—and this is unacceptable! Nurses are the heart and soul of the healthcare system and we must treat them with the kindness, respect, remuneration, and support they deserve!"