Scabs are scabs to be clear

A very dumb and obvious bit of media spin from the clear villain in the nurses strike story

Tenet has proven time and time again during the now four-week-long nurses’ strike at St. Vincent to be the sort of callous, cynical company willing to go to any level, no matter how craven, to cast the nurses striking for safe work conditions—the sort of conditions considered standard near everywhere else in the state—as the bad guys here.

But with this article I’m going to break down for you today, they really jump the shark. 

Titled “Non-striking nurses at St. Vincent Hospital campaign to 'Support Colleagues Above Bullying,'” this article in the Telegram & Gazette has been causing me brain damage every day since it ran.

Turns out “Support Colleagues Above Bullying” is a cheeky play on “scab,” the term used for people who break a picket line to continue working or else fill in for workers on the picket lines. Strikes only work if you refuse to work after all that’s the whole point. That’s the only leverage you have when you’re a working person being abused by a company. So it stands to reason that striking workers would hold a low opinion of those willing to cross the line and reduce the effectiveness of the strike and, oh yeah, work against their own class interest and not stand up to a company that is abusing them. 

Repurposing the word "scab," a label unions use for workers who don't support a job action, some nurses came up with a positive slogan: Supporting Colleagues Above Bullying.

And there’s a picture heading the article of eleven of these poor nurses, who made what I’m sure was a difficult decision to break the line, wearing these thoroughly humiliating t-shirts.

According to the article, it was the nurses themselves who put the slogans on the t-shirts and they’ve raised $3,000 doing so. But the article doesn’t give the first quote to a nurse. It gives it to Tenet’s CEO. 

Nurses say they have been shouted at outside the hospital and bullied on Facebook, according to St. Vincent CEO Carolyn Jackson.

Then the article gives the Massachusetts Nurses Association one sentence where they deny any sort of bullying and called one Facebook video of bullying an “isolated incident.”

Then they quote a nurse involved in the S.C.A.B. campaign, who says this: 

“There is great power in reclaiming the negative experience we have had with the bullying that has taken place during this strike," St. Vincent nurse Jenny Brown said. "My colleagues and I wanted to create a positive outcome from what we have gone through.”

I’ve read enough press releases to spot canned copy when I see it. I’m not saying this nurse didn’t say that, but I’m not not saying it. People don’t talk like that. Out of curiosity, I reached out to a spokeswoman for St. Vincent to see if I could get a copy of the release that the story is based on, and yup, look at that. 

The story is just a press release rewrite with one sentence added for “balance,” but what it accomplishes is aiding and abetting a bad faith attempt at media spin from a for-profit company that is clearly in the wrong for the sake of pumping out as much content as cheaply and as quickly as possible. The press people at Tenet know this is how newspapers like the Telegram are forced to operate with their horribly thin newsrooms and they abuse it. An editor looks at something like this and says oh that’ll take five minutes and they have someone who’s 23 and getting paid $24,000 a year do it. I know a lot about that world and now due to all of you lovely readers I am free of it.

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But back to that quote. The way the line opens is so insulting. “There is great power in reclaiming the negative experience…” It feels like a pointed slap in the face to the MNA and all the striking nurses, who are trying to use the only power they have—the leverage of work stoppage—to get a contract that makes both them and their patients safe. 

What she should have said was, “There is great power in allowing myself to be a public relations tool that the hospital then uses to try to spin public opinion away from the striking nurses and toward the hospital.”

I mean it’s just such transparent skullduggery and, unsurprisingly, the Telegram dutifully reported it. 

The claim of bullying on which this whole totally real and not at all fabricated campaign is tenuously thin. Striking nurses called some of the nurses who crossed the picket line “scabs” on Facebook, which they are. I for one think there should be more bullying. If you cross the picket line and complain that you are made to feel bad about it, maybe you deserve to feel bad about it. You are actively fighting against the cause of patient safety. 

But this is what the strike-breaking nurses told a Telegram reporter back on March 14

A Facebook message identifying a nurse as "scab of the day" was posted Saturday, and nurses Jennifer Porter and Rebekah Pack said strikers on the picket line have carried blown up photos of their faces on cardboard cutouts and have made gestures as working nurses arrive and leave the hospital.

"Holding my face and Bekah's face. They took pictures and blew my head up. That's very unnerving to me," Porter said. "To me that has nothing to do with patient safety, that's just bullying and harassment."

The entire strike is about patient safety. The largest point of contention is that the nurses want a 4-1 patient ratio, not the 5-1 they’re dealing with now. The company has offered them more lucrative deals on other facets of the contract, deals that would benefit existing nurses individually, but instead the nurses have decided to strike over an aspect of the contract that impacts the safety and care of all nurses and all patients. Dealing with 5 patients at a time is unsafe for the patients. Nurses cannot respond adequately when patients need it—they’re spread too thin—and things happen. In order to deliver on a 4-1 patient ratio, the for-profit company that runs this hospital would have to hire more nurses. That would hurt their bottom line. They don’t want to do that. Instead, they’d like to run the nurses they have ragged while providing inadequate care for patients. This is not a difficult situation to understand. So for this nurse to say that getting called a scab by her peers has “nothing to do with patient safety,” that rings pretty hollow, doesn’t it? I mean, her feelings are valid and that was probably not a fun way for her to start her day, but keeping the big picture in mind I find it hard to drum up too much sympathy. 

 In the same article, a representative of the nurses union basically said that if you’re gonna be a scab you should be proud of it, so what’s the problem here exactly?

Schildmeier said identifying nurses who have crossed a picket line is, "not bullying. The belief is if you're gonna cross the picket line, you should be proud of that and you shouldn't be hiding that."

And speaking of bullying, can we keep in mind how this strike started? The nurses started striking because the 5-1 patient ratio was burning out nurses at a clip. They’ve lost more than a hundred in the past year. Nurses rightly assess that the working conditions at that hospital are not as good as they are at other hospitals in the area, so they try and go get a job somewhere else. Nurses who stay don’t get breaks and they’re constantly training new nurses because the turnover is so high. I know that because I went down to the picket line and talked to them, which you can read about here

Most hospitals in the state have a 4-1 patient ratio. It should be required by law, but it isn’t, because private health care companies are a very powerful lobbying group. Every day, nurses would go to work and get bullied by a company unwilling to budge on a contract condition considered standard everywhere else in the state. 

More directly, the hospital has bullied nurses by installing security cameras along the route nurses walk to strike. I don’t think I could put it any better than the MNA rep in this Telegram article on the matter does. 

David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, criticized the hospital for spending money on the cameras during the labor dispute and called the cameras an intimidation tactic to make it feel like "Big Brother" is watching the nurses.

"They are just throwing money away that could be spent on patient care, on keeping people safer to prolong this strike so they can continue endangering patients everyday. It's obscene." Schildmeier said, "The additional aspect of the cameras is another sign of intimidation by this administration to show over the last two years that they have no respect for the nurses who work for them."

In the story, hospital CEO Karen Jackson tries to spin the cameras as a continuation of the “bullying” storyline. The cameras were put up where nurses reportedly “bully” the scabs that cross the line to work for the company, to “review incidents.” If that’s not an intimidation tactic, I don’t know what is. It should be pretty obvious if you have a lick of common sense. And you know what? I think the people being shuttled in to do the nurses’ jobs should feel a little intimidated. The American healthcare system is a runaway train of corporate greed, abuse, and callous disregard for human suffering. These nurses, in a small but symbolically important way, are standing up to the avarice of the industry, and Tenet is going to do everything it can to make an example of them. This is not some small company. This company owns for-profit hospitals around the country. It can easily afford to hire a hundred or so more nurses at St. Vincent to make both the nurses and the patients safer. But if they give in here, they run the risk of encouraging similar actions elsewhere and all of a sudden someone on your board of directors might not be able to finance that second yacht he wants to keep his mistress on. You can’t triple your share price over the course of a global pandemic and treat your people well at the same time, turns out. Tenet is paying thousands a month in police details and for the scabs they bus in. They’re bleeding money to fight a very reasonable demand from their nurses and they’re paying all this money to make an example of this hospital for the rest of the hospitals they own across the country. We need to bleed them dry. 

So yeah, scabs are scabs. They are not people who “Support Colleagues Above Bullying.” They are people who for whatever reason—righteous as it may be to them personally—are actively working against their union’s strategy to get the hospital to treat them decently. And no amount of canned press release rewrites in the local paper of record are going to change that. Tenet will not win the war for public opinion while they continue to treat their employees, who live and work here, so poorly. They won’t win the war of public opinion until they give in. 

Stand strong and keep on bullying, St. V’s nurses!

Solidarity forever.

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