Dozens of Swedish Medical Center workers gathered at a brightly lit downtown Seattle community center Monday night to staple purple and gold picket signs to wooden posts.
The work was in preparation for Tuesday morning when registered nurses, caregivers and staff plan to hit the picket lines outside seven Seattle-area Swedish facilities for what they say is the nation’s largest health-care strike in recent history.
The union, Service Employees International Union Healthcare 1199NW, will represent 7,800 employees who will stage a three-day walkout after almost 10 months of bargaining with hospital management. While the hospital’s most recent proposed contract includes an 11.25% raise over four years, workers say one of their biggest concerns isn’t adequately addressed: staffing.
“I’ve never gone on strike,” said Valarie Howard, a certified nurse assistant who’s worked at Swedish for 22 years. “This is very disheartening that we came to this decision. I don’t want to strike … but [hospital management] came to the table with a lot of ‘nos.’ “
Workers plan to walk out at 7 a.m. Tuesday at all seven campuses, including First Hill, Cherry Hill, Ballard, Issaquah, Edmonds, Redmond and Mill Creek. On Wednesday, they’ll also march from the First Hill campus to Westlake Park, where elected officials and community supporters will join employees in a rally.
The picket lines will continue Thursday, and workers will return to work at 7:30 a.m. Friday.
Even before Tuesday’s planned start of the strike, Swedish was feeling the impact. The hospital closed two of its seven emergency departments — Ballard and Redmond — Monday night, and also temporarily shut the doors to its labor and delivery unit at its Ballard campus on Saturday. All elective surgeries, patient classes and other non-urgent procedures have been rescheduled until after the strike ends.
Ambulances will be stationed outside the Ballard and Redmond facilities this week to transport any patients in need of care to another emergency campus, said Elizabeth Wako, chief medical officer at Swedish First Hill, during a news conference Monday afternoon.
“We feel that this is an unfortunate event but we’re at an impasse in negotiations,” CEO Guy Hudson said at the conference.
All facilities will reopen Friday.
“Despite the challenges, Swedish is well-prepared for the strike,” the hospital said in a Monday news release.
A few thousand replacement nurses and caregivers arrived in Seattle from all around the country a couple of days ago to familiarize themselves with Swedish’s policies and procedures, Wako said. They will assist hospital staff until Saturday.
Several nurses and caregivers who spent Monday making picket signs said that their most pressing concerns include unbalanced nurse-to-patient ratios and faulty medical equipment, including chemotherapy tubes.
Lizette Vanunu, a nurse at the First Hill campus who’s also worked at Swedish for more than 20 years, said she’s frustrated with staff cuts in the past few years, including the removal of the support staff and the IV team — which is made up of experts at placing intravenous tubes — at her facility.
“Enough is enough,” Vanunu said. “Our patients need more.”
While not all union members are participating in the strike, the vast majority will be on the picket line for all three days of the walkout, SEIU representatives said.
“This is not what we wanted to do and we’re ready to partner. We’ve offered to go back to the table,” said SEIU president Diane Sosne. “It is very disappointing how management has been operating for the last four years and the last 10 months.”
And if the strike doesn’t bring hospital officials back to the bargaining table?
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Sosne said.