By Steve Guntli
Hundreds of health care employees have returned to work after a three-day strike at Bellingham’s PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center.
Technical and support staff at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center went on strike on May 13 after negotiations for higher wages and better benefits broke down.
The SEIU Healthcare 1199NW union, which represents nearly 900 workers at the hospital and labs in Bellingham, staged the 25-hour walkout. Workers cited understaffing, insufficient health benefits and stagnant wages as the motivation for the strike. Workers are seeking a cost of living increase and more affordable healthcare.
“PeaceHealth made $50 million in profit in 2015, yet it is still refusing caregivers’ calls for increased staffing and a better investment in frontline care,” read a post on the SEIU website.
PeaceHealth hired temporary employees during the strike from a firm that requires three-day minimum contracts for its employees. As such, strikers were locked out until 7 a.m. on May 16.
On May 14, the day after the strike ended, PeaceHealth officials and security officers barred union employees from returning to work. The employees marched to the hospital bearing signs and shouting slogans each day until they were allowed to return to work on May 16.
Doctors and nurses did not participate in the strike. Union employees include lab techs, nursing assistants, maintenance staff and secretaries.
Employees voted to join the union in 2013 and have been engaged in collective bargaining debates with PeaceHealth ever since. Union leaders and PeaceHealth executives have met for more than 40 sessions, including an 18-hour bargaining session on May 8.
PeaceHealth closed labs at their facilities in Whatcom and Skagit counties from May 13 through May 15. Two facilities, the Medical Arts building in Bellingham and the United General Medical Center in Sedro-Woolley, remained open to handle any urgent test results.
Union reps and PeaceHealth officials say they are still open to negotiating. The next collective bargaining meeting has not yet been scheduled.