By TIM ROWDEN
St. Louis – Registered nurses at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital went on a 24-hour strike Monday, Sept. 25, to protest the administration’s refusal to address RNs’ concerns about patient care, safe staffing, and workplace violence.
The strike follows a 94 percent yes vote on strike authorization on Sept. 1. Nurses, represented by the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU), gave advance notice to the hospital to allow for alternative plans to be made for patient care during the one-day walkout.
SLU Hospital nurses have been in negotiations since May 2023 for a new contract with little to no movement on key issues. Their contract expired on June 15, 2023.
The RNs held an informational picket about the issues on July 19.
They are urging management to invest in nursing staff and agree to a contract that addresses nurse recruitment and retention and workplace violence prevention.
The nurses have presented several proposals and attempted to compromise, the union says, but SSM continues to refuse to address their deep concerns about patient care and safety.
Gail, an RN in the behavioral health who declined to give her last name, has been at the hospital for almost seven years and has 44 years of experience as a registered nurse.
“What we’re fighting for right now here is to give SSM the opportunity to change the trajectory of staffing patterns away from temporary staff and back to permanent staff,” she said. “Right now, we have units 100 percent covered by travel and agency nurses. That’s not a safe practice. It doesn’t provide the quality of care that SSM wants. So we are out here fighting for them, for this hospital, for our patients to change this trajectory back to permanent staffing. They need to come to the table with us and codify into contract those measures that will recruit and retain permanent staff so we can get away from a majority of our staff on a lot of our units being temporary staff.”
The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Council of State Boards of Nursing shows in Missouri, there are more than 38,000 RNs with active licenses who are not working as nurses in the state.
Nationwide, there are more than a million registered nurses with active licenses who are choosing not to work at the bedside because of the hospital industry’s unsafe working conditions.
“There is not a nursing shortage,” Gail said. “There is a lack of competitive wage and benefit packages to attract them to come back into nursing. They’re out there. It’s not about us wanting more money, it’s about us wanting our hospital to have the quality care that our patients deserve.”
Michael James Block, a nurse in the emergency department, said short staffing leads to violence in the emergency room from patients or family upset about their care.
“We’re really out here for three main reasons: trying to reduce violence against staff, trying to get safe staffing and trying to get staff retention,” he said.
“All of those things are interrelated for us because when we’re not adequately staffed patients don’t get turned, they don’t get to the bathroom, they don’t get updates for their family. They get upset and they get violent. That’s understandable. You’re having the worst day of your life in the emergency department. So when they’re upset, that increases workplace violence against us and that reduces patient safety, that reduces our safety, which makes people not want to work here, which creates a staffing crisis.
“We’re in this vicious cycle where we can’t retain nurses because it’s a bad place to work and it’s a bad place to work because we can’t retain nurses. Our stance is to make this a good place to work by reducing violence, paying us fair market rates and giving us safe staffing.”
‘GIVE MY NURSES WHAT THEY WANT’
Ruth, a patient at the hospital undergoing treatment for kidney failure, rolled herself out to the sidewalk Monday morning to support the nurses. From her wheelchair she held a picket sign while chanting “Give my nurses what they want.”
“I need my nurses back. They’re caring. I don’t care how many times you push that button, they’re there,” she said.
Ruth said she decided to come out when the phone in her room stopped working and she couldn’t order breakfast. She noted that the hospital is also short staffed in the kitchen. “They don’t have enough people,” she said.