The first day of the three-day strike by 7,800 health-care workers at Swedish Medical Center facilities went like this: Pickets, chants and emotions were met with management bringing in what it said were “thousands” of outside workers, and vowing that if negotiations begin anew, “all bets are off the table.”
Throughout Tuesday, outside the Swedish First Hill Campus on Broadway Avenue in Seattle, several hundred strikers sang out, “We’re here! We’re strong! We’ll fight for patients all day long!” Motorists frequently honked their car horns in support.
Nearby, at a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, Mona Locke, chief communications officer for Swedish and its seven facilities, said, “We’re pleased to report that the transition today went extremely smoothly.”
She was referring to the caregivers who had been flown in from across the country and given five-day contracts by Swedish in preparation for the walkout.
Swedish decided over the weekend to close emergency services at two of its campuses, Ballard and Redmond, lasting until the end of the strike on Friday. Swedish has rescheduled all elective surgeries, patient classes and some other procedures for much of the week at some campuses.
While the picketing is scheduled to last three days, Locke said that striking workers would be called back to work “on a rolling basis” as the temporary contracted workers ended their five days.
Locke said that many Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare 1199NW caregivers ended up crossing the picket line and coming to work.
She put the number “in the high hundreds,” though SEIU president Diane Sosne said the number who crossed was “minimal” compared to the thousands of workers who went on strike.
The union staged the walkout after almost 10 months of bargaining with hospital management. Their primary concerns include what the union says is a staffing shortage, inadequate equipment and a lack of security for patients and workers.
On the latter issue, Betsy Scott, a 38-year oncology nurse at Swedish First Hill, said that metal detectors and more security should be available at the Swedish facilities.
At the First Hill and Cherry Hill campuses east of downtown Seattle, she said, “We see the same population as Harborview does. They have metal detectors and guards.”
About metal detectors, said Locke, “I think it’s a topic of discussion.”
While Locke acknowledged that Swedish has about 600 open nurse positions, she said it’s a “tough, tight market.”
“We are constantly recruiting every day,” she said. “As you know, there’s a national nursing shortage and Seattle is no stranger to that … We’re working every day to fill them and we’re filling them with traveling nurses when we can.”
As for what would happen to negotiations when the strike was over, Locke said, “All bets are off the table.” She said negotiations would have to begin over again, noting that management is prepared to stand firm on their proposal.
The most recent contract the hospital offered included an 11.25% raise over four years — 3% retroactive to 2019; 3% in 2020; 2.75% in 2021; and 2.5% in 2022. SEIU countered with their own proposal, a 23.25% increase in wages over four years.
The last contract expired at the end of July and caregivers have been working without one for almost six months, Sosne said.
Lizette Vanunu, a night-shift intensive-care-unit charge nurse, who has worked at the Swedish First Hill campus for 32 years, explained the logic of a three-day strike.
“Our union is composed of all of the departments in our institution, starting with environmental-service technicians and those in patient registration,” she said. “Their wages are not as high as those of nurses.”
That first job description is for workers who clean and disinfect patient rooms. The union says their wages range from $15.55 to $26.04 an hour, in a city with sky-high rental prices.
Vanunu said that 10 months of negotiating, and now the strike, have taken their toll.
“There are hard feelings. We’ve lost faith in our employer. It’s going to take a long time to get over this,” said Vanunu.