More than 500 people crowded into the meeting room of Our Lady of the Rosary Church on Benefit St in Providence for the Worker & Community Speakout for Good Jobs and Quality Care on January 17. At issue was the contract negotiation between Lifespan/Rhode Island Hospital and General Teamsters Local 251 representing some 2,500 hospital employees.
According to Local 251, “As a non-profit entity, Lifespan and RI Hospital are supposed to put the healthcare needs of the community first. Unfortunately, management has taken cost cutting measures, causing shortages in equipment and staff that undermine patient care.”
Literature at the Speakout quoted a nurse, Aliss Collins, saying, “When we are understaffed, I cover 56 patients in three units. It’s not right for the patients or the employees.” There was a story at the Speakout of another nurse who was forced to buy her own equipment for measuring oxygen levels, because the hospital did not provide it.
Obamacare has allowed Lifespan/RI Hospital to take in an additional $33 million in net revenue last year, because so many Rhode Islanders are now covered under Medicaid. Yet rather than invest this money in patient care, Lifespan pays its “ten highest paid executives” more than $16.6 million in its last fiscal year, an average of $1 million more in compensation “than the average earned by CEOs of nonprofit hospitals nationally,” according to the union.
At the same time, hospital employees such as single mom Nuch Keller make $12.46 an hour with no healthcare coverage. Keller’s pay does not even cover her rent. She regularly works 40 hours or more per week, yet Lifespan continues to pay her as a part-time employee. And in case you missed it, Keller works at a non-profit hospital, and receives no healthcare.
The Speakout was intended to show community support for the workers of RI Hospital, and was attended by Representatives David Cicilline and Jim Langevin, as well as General treasurer Seth Magaziner. There were also representatives from many other unions and community groups such as Jobs with Justice, Unite Here! and Fuerza Laboral. Many religious leaders, including Father Joseph Escobar and Rev Duane Clinker, were on hand to show support.
It was hard not to feel that something new was happening at the Speakout. The level of community support and solidarity made one feel as if a union resurgence were imminent, which many feel is necessary if obscene inequality is to be combated.
It was Duane Clinker who helped put the event into perspective for me. He said that unions have often limited their negotiations to wages, hours and benefits, and health-care unions have long argued staffing levels, but “when/if organized workers really make alliance with the community around access to jobs and improved patient care – if that happens in such a large union and a key employer in the state, then we enter new territory.”
This struggle continues on Thursday, January 29, from 2-6pm, with an Informational Picket at Rhode Island Hospital. “The picket line on Thursday is for informational purposes. It is is not a request that anyone cease working or refuse to make deliveries.”
Full video from the Speakout is below.