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In solidarity: how the nurses at St. Vincent's came together

By Deb Rigiero, RN
Associate Director of Organizing


In solidarity. I have used these words often, particularly when signing off on letters and fliers.

In the spring of 2000, the nurses at St. Vincent's Hospital, Worcester, experienced the true meaning of "Solidarity." On our strike line, along with the St. Vincent nurses, there were nurses from all over, as well as firefighters, police, carpenters, steelworkers, elevator workers, bus drivers, postal workers, food workers, community groups, political leaders and many others. We have a big book listing all those who came on the line, donated to our cause and supported us during our strike. You don't realize how much it means until you're on the receiving end of this solidarity. Broad-based support also makes management aware that a strike is perceived as a public issue, and delivers the message that the union has support from other unions, the community and political leaders. This is the reason you picket, leaflet or strike. A strike or picket would not work if it was done in a vacuum with no inside nor outside support.

You do not have to go out on strike to experience the solidarity I mention above. However, it is important to have contacts in the area with other unions, a labor council, community groups and local politicians. These resources are usually already being accessed by members of your bargaining unit. You may have a member who is on a neighborhood community group, works for a political campaign, knows a reporter or who attends labor functions with a family member or friend. You may meet local legislators, community activists, and other union activists at school functions, sport functions or other gatherings.

That's how I got started. I would go to political functions, labor actions and labor council meetings with my husband. I actually met other nurses who were there with their spouses. The people I met at these meetings were interested in what was happening in their communities and to their constituents.

At St. Vincent's we were lucky. Many contacts were in place before our first job action. Before we organized, Rep. Jim McGovern, our congressman, knew we were going to have a vote for a union. Prior to our first candlelight vigil, the mayor, the labor council, the senior action committee all knew we were having issues at the table. Before we voted to go on strike, the labor and political communities were aware of the issues. All these people were there with us the night before our strike. All these people have been with us since.

The nurses at St. Vincent's and Brockton all took the first courageous step of voting to go on strike. It took courage to take a stand against an issue and withdraw nursing care for such a belief. It took courage to put the safety of patients first over the security of a weekly paycheck. It took courage to stand together with their co-workers out on the streets of Worcester in the rain, sleet, and snow and on the streets of Brockton in the oppressive heat. As Hillary Clinton says, "It takes a village." That village, our community, supported us every step of the way, helping to make our strikes the successes they ultimately were.

I'm sure if you talk to any nurse who has had to picket, leaflet or strike they would tell you that having co-workers, other unions, the community and political leaders walking beside them is important not only for a show of strength but also for the emotional support of knowing that you are not alone. Life is busy and we often don't pay attention to all the peripheral issues that may not have a direct impact on our day-to-day lives. I would read about pickets and strikes; I would also do my own personal boycotts (grapes, strawberries, Coors beer, etc.) to feel that I was at least participating in my own small way. After being on strike, I realize that every worker's struggle is our struggle and our struggle is every worker's struggle. City workers picketing so the city will not raise their insurance rates can directly impact our ability to negotiate our insurance rates. The St. Vincent's nurses and Brockton nurses strikes led to language in other nursing contracts that prohibit or limit mandatory overtime.

Since our strike, many nurses at St. Vincent's have participated in other union strikes and pickets. I remember going to a picket at Raytheon and hearing the shouts of "the nurses are here!" as we crossed the street to the picket line. In California, we stood at an Albertson's strike line for 30 minutes. We walked away feeling even those 30 minutes made a difference. Standing on the strike line with the Worcester Saint Gobain workers or bus drivers helped me appreciate the courage and sacrifices these workers are making. You feel you are part of a brotherhood or sisterhood that is taking a stand against the unjust and unfair treatment of workers.

You've all taken the first step in becoming an active member. You've organized and are a union. You have a real voice in the work place. The next step is to maintain and nourish the contacts that you have within your community. The Region 2 members are part of the Central Massachusetts Labor Council. We send delegates to the council meetings. They hear our issues and we hear their issues. We have mutually supported each other through job actions, letters, phone calls, and other methods.

When you are at a political function, let legislators know what is happening in their community with their constituents. Support and work for the candidates who support our issues. It is more important to talk to your legislator than to have someone from the MNA talk to them. They want to hear from their constituents. Hold signs at the polls, make phone calls, or donate to a candidate's campaign. Be there for them and they'll be there for you. Let your community activists know what is happening in their community. Participate in neighborhood groups, school groups, town meetings, etc. It doesn't have to take a lot of your time. It may be one phone call to your legislator, 20 minutes on a picket line, a letter to the editor or a meeting a month. Every little bit helps. It is better for your bargaining unit to have a lot of people spending a little time, than a few people spending a lot of time working toward a common goal.

At this I leave you with two thoughts. The first is don't drive by a picket line without stopping, even if it is just for five minutes. Five minutes out of your busy day is priceless to the workers on the line. The second is a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: "All life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

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