Barb Tiller is a mother of four boys, a wife, and a highly skilled operating-room nurse who has been working at Tufts Medical Center in Boston for 27 years. Last Wednesday, for the first time in her life, she walked off the job along with 1,200 other nurses—almost all women—in the largest nurses’ strike in Massachusetts’s history, and the first in Boston for 31 years. “Nurses don’t stand up for ourselves,” says Tiller. “We stand up for our patients; we stand up for our families when we go home. We stand up for everyone else. But we can’t work under these conditions anymore—like being locked in the operating room with no water, no bathroom break, no meal break, for 12 hours at a time.”
Alyssa Gold, a cardiology nurse whose 16 months at Tufts mirrors the duration of the contract negotiations between the nurses and hospital management, says, “I was excited to start working at Tufts because the best learning for nurses happens in Boston hospitals.” Five years into nursing, which she refers to as her calling, Gold agrees with Tiller about the dire need for change. In the days leading up to the strike, Gold faced some of the fears and self-doubt that hospital managers count on. “Once we sent the 10-day notice to strike, I had to talk myself out of thinking that the daily stress of nursing was my fault,” she says. “I had to be clear that I am not the one deciding to give us too many patients to give the kind of care we all desire to give—management is, and the strike shows what good nurses we are because we are the ones who are trying to fix the situation.”
The central issue in the Tufts dispute—nurses’ being asked to work way too hard with far too few staff, leading to unsafe conditions, incredible stress, and burn out—is at the root of just about every health-care dispute in this country, if not every workplace in America. Also at issue in the Tufts strike is the gender pay gap, particularly the retirement gender gap, with a CEO who earns in excess of $1 million demanding an end to the female workforce’s pension plan.
According to Julie Pinkham, a registered nurse and the executive director of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), what “led to this strike is the arrogance and ignorance of the employer. They seem to think the union is a suggestion box they can ignore. [Management is] a male institution thinking they can snub 1,200 women and pretend their opinions about health care don’t count.”
During 35 separate negotiations sessions that began in April 2016, Tufts management dug in its heels. Month after month, the hospital refused to do what every other major hospital in a city that prides itself on providing world-class care has done: respect front-line caregivers. Brigham and Women’s Hospital management, facing a similar situation last year, worked around the clock, channeling their resources into averting a strike by their nurses. Tufts management locked out the striking nurses—and spent at least $6 million just on the wages of strikebreakers they flew in from around the country, and fed and housed in Boston hotels. Brian Doherty, the leader of the Boston Building & Construction Trades Council, says, “This is a working-class city, and we have an employer who is acting way out-of-bounds. None of us knows why Tufts management is taking this tack. But it feels personal to all of us: It feels ideological..”