Buffalo, N.Y.—At 6 am last Friday, more than 2,000 health care workers at Mercy Hospital here—part of the Catholic Health network—took to the picket line in part of a growing wave of labor unrest in Western New York and the nation.

The strike at Mercy Hospital follows months of bargaining to reach a successor agreement to a one-year contract extension covering three Catholic Health campuses in Buffalo, agreed to in August of 2020. According to union officials, it’s the first time that six different bargaining units have bargained together at one table for a master agreement that would, if reached, cover three different Buffalo area hospitals represented by the Communications Workers of America.

Some of the remaining issues include Catholic Health’s proposal to reduce health care benefits for new hires—a practice commonly referred to as “two tier”—and implementing safe staffing ratios ahead of New York’s recently passed safe staffing law. They’re also seeking raises, especially for those in the lowest-paid jobs, some of which make under $14 an hour. But according to the CWA, a stressed health care system pushed to the breaking point by the Covid-19 pandemic is a key part of why they’re on strike.

“The stories that we are hearing from our members are heartbreaking,” says Debbie Hayes, upstate area director for the CWA and a member of the bargaining committee. “People are telling us stories about using ripped towels to make washcloths, using hospital socks for washcloths, not being able to get medical-grade gloves, not being able to get urinals, and using suction canisters for patients to urinate [in].”

Negotiations for new agreements covering Kenmore Mercy Hospital, Mercy Hospital of Buffalo, and St. Joseph Campus have been tense for months. In August, the CWA held informational pickets and accused Catholic Health of failing to negotiate in good faith. Democratic socialist and Democratic nominee for mayor of Buffalo India Walton—herself a former union nurse with SEIU 1199—was among the attendees at the informational picket. Walton is running to replace incumbent Mayor Byron Brown, who is seeking his fifth term through a write-in campaign after his defeat in the Democratic primary.

Although Catholic Health calls the decision to strike “inconceivable” during a global pandemic, the CWA says the strike could’ve been avoided. “We’re on strike because the administration at Catholic Health was tone deaf,” says Hayes. “They refused to listen to the workers when they tried to explain to them what the conditions were like, and why they just couldn’t do it anymore.” Rank-and-file members like Josh Zuppinger, an immediate treatment assistant at Mercy, agree; according to Zuppinger, the negotiations seemed “very one-sided,” and like Catholic Health “was trying to procrastinate and kind of wait till the last minute” on reaching an agreement.

Deteriorating conditions and one-sided negotiations have contributed to months of building frustration and low morale. In June, media reported on unsanitary conditions in the hospitals, with dirt and blood left on the floor because of short staffing, especially among environmental service workers.

“I have to pray before I walk up to the building to work, and I have to pray while I’m in the building during work,” says Diane Peach, an environmental services worker at Mercy. “I have to take care of me, and my family, and it’s hard, it’s very hard.… the company, they treat you like you’re insignificant.” Peach says that most environmental services workers like her aren’t even making $14 an hour, despite their responsibility for high cleaning standards for hospital facilities, including operating rooms.

The decision to strike wasn’t easy for Peach, but she says walking the picket line changed things for her. “To come up here and get to talk with everybody, laugh with everybody, it made me feel like I was home, I was comfortable, and that we’re family.” Kimberly Hayward, another environmental service worker like Peach, also says that striking was scary—but worth it. “It’s going to be beneficial, because we need safe staffing and a good staffing ratio.”

For workers, improving patient care, and especially safe staffing ratios, are the most important goals for them in a new contract, and it’s worth going out on strike. Workers describe out-of-control patient ratios, high stress, and chronic understaffing, with continual turnover from employees leaving Mercy—with some leaving nursing altogether.

Katherine Kelly, a union steward and a charge nurse with Catholic Health for 38 years, believes health care workers are ultimately striking for patient care. “Walking away from [my patients] was the hardest thing I’ve ever done personally,” she says, “but I knew I had to take a stand and say, you know what, I can’t do for them what I would normally do, even just holding their hand as they’re dying.”

Union members say patients and the community are behind them. Patients are putting signs of support in their windows, and some have even come out to picket with health care workers, with one coming to tell them how poorly non-union replacement nurses treat patients. “He said it’s very negative care he’s getting from the agency nurses and he had to get out of there,” says Zuppinger. “They asked him to come back inside, and he told them no, because the real nurses are outside.”

Community support has been plentiful; community members, other unions, and businesses have brought food and walked the picket line with striking workers. “Buffalo is a labor town,” says Hayes. “The percentage of unionized workers in Buffalo is well above the national average, and the support from the labor community and organized labor for the striking workers has been incredible.”

The fight at Mercy isn’t isolated. Unrest among health care workers has grown since the Covid-19 pandemic began, and the Buffalo area has seen a number of nationally groundbreaking organizing campaigns and large strikes in recent months. They’re part of a national trend: Rare large strikes loom at Kaiser Permanente, involving over 50,000 health care workers, and against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers involving over 60,000 IATSE members. The coming potential labor unrest could restart, or even intensify, the wave of strikes prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Health care workers in Buffalo see the connection and say that their fight is the same fight faced by health care workers and Americans nationwide. “We have to fix it,” says Debbie Hayes. “We have to look at how we deliver care in this country. We have to look at the lack of attention that is being given to the people that deliver the care, and we really need to readjust our priorities.

“The [St. Vincent’s] nurses that have been on strike in Massachusetts for over six months…. it’s incredible, and those nurses are on strike for the same thing.”

Bringing the Buffalo strike to a conclusion may prove difficult. On Saturday, Debbie Hayes told The Nation that Catholic Health had indicated that; it was open to resuming negotiations if the union made a comprehensive offer. According to local news, Catholic Health failed to show up for negotiations at 10 am the following morning; as of Sunday evening, Catholic Health refused to meet in person until, according to the Buffalo News, the “union could control its members on the picket line.” According to the union, CWA and Catholic Health resumed bargaining Wednesday morning for the first time since the strike began.

The union is standing strong in its demands for better patient care. “I would much rather be inside giving those patients the care that they deserve,” says Zuppinger. “But I know being out here is going to give them the care that they deserve in the long run.”