SLU Hospital Nurses say SSM Health leader violated federal law by attempting to decertify union

After a year of negotiations, nurses rally to demand a fair contract

By TIM ROWDEN
Editor-in-Chief

LEW MOYE (left), president emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists St. Louis Chapter, rallies nurses outside SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital on June 18. Nurses have been in contract negotiations for more than a year. – Labor Tribune photo

St. Louis – After a full year of negotiations with no progress, registered nurses at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital (SLUH) rallied outside the hospital June 18 to demand a fair contract and call attention to management’s efforts to bust their union.

The SLUH nurses, represented by the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU), have been working without a contract for 12 months and have been in contract negotiations since May 2023. Their contract expired on June 15, 2023.

Rather than bargaining in good faith during that period, nurses say, SSM Health was actively trying to decertify the union. NNOC filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against SSM Health in December 2023.

On March 29, 2024, SSM Health sent a notice to nurses, admitting that an SSM Health leader provided “assistance to a decertification campaign,” which was “not consistent with the law or with the Hospital’s values and expectations.”

Since management admitted to violating the law, nurses say, there has been some movement on key economic issues, but RNs’ concerns about recruitment and retention remain.

“We want to get this done,” said Danny Ritter, Midwest coordinator for NNU. “We came close in May, but there’s still a lot of economic issues and retention and staffing issues on the table that we want resolved.”

The nurses previously held strikes in September and December 2023 and an informational picket in July 2023 to raise attention to issues of patient safety and nurse retention.

NURSES LEAVING
Since December 2023, more than 130 nurses have left the hospital, with some hospital units staffed almost entirely by temporary agency or travel nurses.

As a result, the nurses say, some new operating room nurses are being trained by temporary or agency, nurses, not core staff nurses. And some of the new hires have already quit due to inadequate training.

SLUH’s turnover rate is nearly 25 percent.

PATIENTS SUFFERING
Kellie Allen, an RN in the cardiac step-down unit at SLUH, said retention and recruitment are critical to providing safe and optimal patient care. “It is unconscionable that management will not include any cost-of-living increase in our contract, given the rising costs of groceries, gas, and rent,” Allen said. Nurses have been leaving to work at other hospitals. Their last proposal falls short in ensuring nurse retention and that we will have safe staffing.

“We started this union because we need a contract that will make it possible for us to recruit and retain nurses,” she said. “It’s ridiculous that we still don’t have a contract after a year of negotiations. SSM continues to refuse to listen the nurses at SLUH hospital. Over 100 of them have voted with their feet and have left the hospital and work elsewhere over the past six months. Our patients feel this.”

For example, Allen said, in the week prior to the rally, three patients were found to have bed sores in the cardiac step-down unit.

“That used to be one or two a year, and that wasn’t good,” Allen said. “Now we’re seeing two or three a week, and that’s because we don’t have core staff to meet their core measures. With adequate staffing we would have caught the signs of this with staffing that was dedicated to the outcome of the patients here. We appreciate our agency nurses, but they’re not invested like we’re invested in patient care.”

Allen said the hospital has experienced reduced Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements as a result of patient’s core needs not being met.

“Those wounds hurt their bottom line,” Allen said. “I hurt because it hurts my patients bottoms – literally. It’s completely unacceptable that anyone should leave here with a sore that was allowed to be caused by us.”

Allen said nurses also are using their own money to buy food for patients because of the unreliability of the hospital’s meal service.

“We’re out there on the floors begging for a sandwich, and we’re spending hours of our shift trying to make sure our patients have a meal,” she said.

SACRIFICING SAFETY
Ben Christianson, a nurse in the behavioral health department at SLUH said the situation has gotten so bad, SSM even asked staff on the behavioral health unit to concede their 24-hour security guards to cut costs.

“I can tell you working this job, the security guards are not there for show. They regularly intervene to protect patients from attacking other patients, as well as patients from attacking staff members. They even stop patients from hurting themselves,” Christianson said.

“I love my job. I got into the specialty of nursing because I care about this population. I take care of patients after their suicide attempts, during their acute psychotic episodes, or their acute manic episodes. I do it because I care deeply about this and want to work in a place where I feel I can make a difference.

“Unfortunately after pickets, press conferences and two strikes, we are still negotiating for a fair and workable contract.

“What we are asking for is not outrageous or extravagant. We are only asking for a contract that retains staff and values our safety and the safety of our patients. We need a contract that allows us to continue providing the best care for our patients while also retaining a decent quality of life or out families.”

COMMUNITY, LABOR  SUPPORT

REGISTERED NURSES at SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital rally outside the hospital June 18 to call out management’s attempt to decertify their union and demand a fair contract, after more than a year of negotiations. – Labor Tribune photo

Nurses were joined at the rally by representatives from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 420, and Teamsters Local 688, and cheered on by drivers on Grand Avenue enthusiastically honking their support.

Lew Moye, president emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) St. Louis Chapter and retired United Autoworkers (UAW) member, also joined nurses at the rally, pledging CBTU’s support as they continue to fight for a fair contract.

“Shame on St. Louis University!” Moye said. “It’s time for them to get serious at the bargaining table and bargain a just contract, a contract with benefits, a contract with wages.

“I know that one of your main interests is the patients inside,” Moye said. “You want to make sure you can provide the care your patients need.”

NNOC has represented nurses at  SLU Hospital since 2012.


One Comment

  • Nursing is a hard but passionate job you must have compassion you must love what you do to work in this field I am a CNA and I have worked in many fields. I just pray that it gets better because we our job is very stressful .

    Reply

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