Get ready for 8,000 nurses to pour out of Swedish hospitals next week.
Get ready for 8,000 nurses to pour out of Swedish hospitals next week. COURTESY OF SEIU 1199

As Washington state confirms the country's first case of Wuhan coronavirus, 8,000 Swedish caregivers responsible for treating patients and disinfecting hospital rooms are barreling toward a massive three-day strike scheduled for next week.

Though caregivers say they don't want to strike, bosses at Swedish, which was recently acquired by Providence, are telling staff they don't plan to return to the bargaining table before the union's January 28 deadline.

Since the union gave its ten-day notice last week, caregivers say the hospital has been playing hardball. Swedish has dropped $11 million on 5-day contracts with scabs that will effectively lock out striking caregivers from two days of work. The hospital has also hired, some caregivers hear, as many as 200 "tactical security" guards with body cameras.

According to an email Swedish sent to caregivers, "many" caregivers who want to work during the strike were afraid of being "subjected to harassment, retaliation, or abuse from SEIU supporters," and so the hospital hired the guards to "protect" nonstriking nurses.

Delores Prescott, a surgical nurse who has worked at Swedish-First Hill for 18 years, says she's not aware of any co-workers feeling intimidated by strikers, though she and others have felt intimidated by Swedish managers.

Prescott said managers have been "pulling staff into offices and telling them they need to sign a document asking if they're going to strike or not." Prescott, who received an email late last week asking her for the same information, said the hospital is looking to collect "data" on caregivers who choose to strike.

Prescott and another Swedish employee, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, say there has been some chicanery with bargaining pay, too. Caregivers who bargained during round-the-clock negotiations at the beginning of January were supposed to get paid for that work last Friday, but the money didn't show up in paychecks. After workers complained, Prescott said, Swedish put the money back in.

Since caregivers are bargaining for better wages, more staff, and increased safety features such as metal detectors at hospital entrances, Prescott couldn't help but notice some hypocrisy in Swedish's decision to beef up security for the strike and blow $11 million on replacement workers. "This is the second-and-a-half time I've bargained, and I've never seen bargaining with such disrespect," she said. "This feels so different because of the people involved. We've never gotten to this point in our bargaining, and it's been over forty years since there's even been talk of a strike."

Last summer, a thousand workers picketed Swedish's First Hill campus. Later on in December, the unions approved a full-on strike, which prompted Swedish to call everybody back to the bargaining table in early January. Both sides say they bargained 24/7 for a week, with negotiators sleeping in shifts. Despite intense negotiations, they were unable to reach an agreement on staffing, wages and benefits, and more training and support for custodial staff.

The major sticking points appear to be wage increases and staffing issues. According to a list of contract proposals provided by Swedish, caregivers want more control over staffing decisions and a 23.25% wage increase over the course of four years (i.e. about a 6% raise each year). Swedish is only offering an 11.25% wage increase over four years (a 3% raise per year) and committee positions on staffing boards.

According to their latest tax statements, Providence, a Catholic non-profit that acquired Swedish in 2012, compensates its 16 executives to the tune of $41 million.