Union organizers say an overwhelming majority of Swedishs caregivers joined the picket line.
Union organizers say an "overwhelming majority" of Swedish's caregivers joined the picket line. RS

Tuesday morning thousands of Swedish caregivers organized with Service Employees International Union 1199NW formed picket lines at seven campuses across the Puget Sound region. They'll picket around-the-clock at the hospital's First Hill, Cherry Hill, Ballard, Edmonds, and Issaquah locations, but only for 12 hours at Swedish facilities in Redmond and Mill Creek, as those places aren't open all night.

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On the first day of their planned three-day strike, which organizers say is the largest of its kind in recent memory, caregivers in purple beanies and plastic ponchos marched up and down the sidewalk outside of the hospital's First Hill campus, chanting "patients before profits!" A folk singer played union songs beside a big-ass 18-wheeler the Teamster parked out front in solidarity. Other supporters drove by, laying on their horns and holding their fists in the air.

The union has been negotiating with Swedish for 10 months now without reaching an agreement. Staffing and wage increases, which caregivers see as intimately connected, are still the major sticking points.

Cindy, an operating nurse who has worked at Swedish for 39 years, said short staffing troublingly increases the time it takes to complete a surgery. Nurses also end up having to take more calls at night, which adds stress and exhaustion to an already tired and stressed-out workforce and pushes them out the door. "The people who are quitting from Swedish are going to other area hospitals and telling them how bad Swedish is to work for, so it's also poisoning the pond, so to speak," she said.

Betsy Scott, an oncology nurse who has worked at Swedish for 38 years, thinks offering higher wages would allow the hospital to recruit more people, especially those who can't afford the region's sky-high living costs. "People are leaving and we can't recruit anybody," she said, adding that short-staffing among the hospital's environmental service workers recently forced Swedish to hire contract workers to clean "blood and fluids" from First Hill's emergency department.

Scott also said hospital managers sent "multiple nasty emails" in the days before the strike, which she found discouraging. "It's gotten very negative and mean," Scott said. "We wonder how we're going to go back and have trust and faith in our management after this strike."

On Wednesday caregivers plan to gather at the First Hill location at 3:30 p.m. and then march down to Westlake for a rally at 4:30 p.m. Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda is scheduled to speak at the rally, along with King County Councilmembers Girmay Zahilay, Rod Dembowski, and Jeanne Kohl-Welles.

Solidarity for the strikers has not been thin on the ground. The firefighters, the cops, the engineers, and Nicole Grant, executive secretary-treasurer of the MLK Labor Council, all showed up Tuesday morning to lend their support.

Members of Elizabeth Warren's Washington state staff dropped off donuts and milk and joined the picket line in their liberty green t-shirts. In the last week, Sen. Warren tweeted in support of the strike, as has Sen. Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to tweet soon, according to an SEIU organizer. Michael Bloomberg has not been responsive to the union's requests.

Local elected officials have been out in full force, too. King County Executive Dow Constantine, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, and City Councilmember Tammy Morales have stopped by First Hill, with City Councilmember Dan Strauss joining strikers at the Ballard location. City Councilmember Andrew Lewis plans to pay a visit today as well. Mayor Jenny Durkan will speak at the First Hill location on Friday.

Seattle Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant are out of town but have sent letters in support of the strikers. Councilmember Lorena Gonzales plans to send staff.

Councilmember Debora Juarez hasn't responded to SEIU's invitation to speak, and Seattle Councilmember Alex Pedersen "can't make it for some reason," said an organizer. Some members of Washington's Congressional delegation plan to send staff.

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Though SEIU's members plan to walk back to their patient's bedsides at 7:30 a.m. Friday morning, Swedish has instructed workers not to show up until Sunday morning, Feb. 2. Union members say they'll show up anyway, and, if the hospital locks them out, then they'll file affidavits. "We feel that's an unfair labor practice," Scott said.

Since Swedish signed five-day contracts with thousands of scabs—even though they knew the strike was only going to last for three days—the law isn't on the union's side in this case.

In a statement, a Swedish spokesperson said care "continues uninterrupted" despite the strike. They maintain that the Ballard and Redmond emergency departments, as well as the Ballard Labor and Delivery department, which the hospital closed during the strike, will reopen Friday morning. "Since the strike began, there have been no patient care incidents related to those closures," the spokesperson added.