Temple Hospital Workers Launch Month-Long Strike, Defeat Boss’s Attempt to Bust Union

Bill Zoda

The nurses, instead of remaining demoralized, began to organize immediately. Tired of the low militancy and poor representation of their parent union, the Temple nurses left and formed the independent Pennsylvania Association of School Nurses and Practitioners (PASNAP). Three years later and much better organized ,the nurses were able to mount a credible strike threat and won a contract that not only erased the losses of 1999 but also made substantial gains in wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Three years following the 2003 contract victory, the leadership of the professional and technical employees union (also dissatisfied with the low militancy and poor representation of their parent union) approached the leadership of PASNAP to affiliate. They made their affiliation formal in a landslide election.
Soon after their affiliation with PASNAP the professionals’ union saw their membership climb from about 30% to well over 90%. Both the professionals’ local and the nurses local signed contracts maintaining strong gains and once again caught the bosses off guard, with both groups of workers now mounting a credible and joint strike threat.

The Temple bosses now have had enough. Tired of being humiliated and worried about the threat of an increasingly organized and militant workforce, Temple immediately began a sophisticated campaign to bust the union with no expenses spared.

A year and a half prior to the strike, a new radical right wing and highly paid CEO, Ed Notebaert, was brought in to spearhead the anti-union battle. High priced corporate lawyers were exchanged for even higher priced corporate lawyers and Temple’s anti-union labor relations/human resources department began to swell with highly paid anti-union bureaucrats. This made even minor day-to-day workplace issues almost impossible to solve.

Notebaert’s first move at Temple was to shut down its last community hospital. Temple’s Northeastern Hospital had served working class Port Richmond for decades and was also the community’s largest employer.

The well organized campaign against the hospital’s closure led by PASNAP and the local community was something that Notebaert was not used to. The level of outspokenness and negative press attention that Temple received during this campaign clearly led to Temple’s serious demand that union members censor themselves from all public criticism of the administration.

Seeing the coming storm a year in advance, union members began preparing for a strike by finding part time jobs and saving money. They were not ready to surrender their union.

A few days prior to the expiration of their contract, Temple gave to the union what they called a "Last, Best, and Final Offer." Within the offer, aside from deep economic and benefit concessions, laid a systematic plan of breaking the union. Aside from eliminating the union shop, the boss proposed that the nurses’ local of the union separate itself from the professionals’ local of the union, drastically cutting down on solidarity and eliminating the possibility of a joint strike. Finally the boss demanded that the “union” and all union members censor themselves of any public criticism of the boss or the bosses’ policies under the threat of discipline.

Such a proposal would have prevented the union’s campaign to save Northeastern Hospital and limited the union’s effort to secure mandated nurse to patient ratios. The limitations on free speech were simply intolerable.

Instead of striking immediately the union dug in for several more months to prepare for a strike of several weeks duration. This meant more time for every member to secure a second income or to simply save even more money while at the same time it gave the union more time to expand its community campaign (including the student campaign on Temple’s campus).

By the second week of the strike, Temple had already spent more fighting the union than it would have taken them to settle the strike even giving the union everything it was asking for, for four years.

By the one month mark, all of Temple’s anti-union demands were gone. A better wage proposal was on the table, including base salary increases for some of the lowest paid workers. A compromise was reached on a tuition benefit that the boss said employees would never see again and the union was able to delay the full implementation of the bosses' skyrocketing healthcare costs.

While all strikes are settled with compromises, the clout of the union following the strike, the solidarity that the strike created, and beating back of 100% of the bosses anti-union demands were priceless victories. Furthermore, PASNAP members understand that the rising costs in healthcare is a problem much larger than Temple and can not be fought one boss at a time. This is why PASNAP, along with other progressive unions, has been demanding and working hard for the implementation of a single payer healthcare system and will continue to do so, now with more fervor.

The 2010 Temple strike will be remembered for decades to come but if the labor movement and working class are to survive to fight another day, the lessons of the strike have to be learned and understood now. As large strikes become increasingly rare, American workers are losing one of their most valuable tools to stem the increasing wealth disparities. Many unions lack either the political will or the organizational capacity to strike, thus creating an ever-lowering of expectations for organized workers.

Dormant unions, such as those who reject real healthcare reform and those who expect to cozy up to employers as opposed to organizing workers or their own members, will do little to stem the increasing gap between rich and poor and nothing to educate their members of their own power and solidarity.

On the positive side, countless union members from across the city came out to show their solidarity, many of which expressed a deep gratitude to the temple workers for “re-energizing” the labor movement in Philadelphia. There is a hunger for reform within the labor movement spreading from coast to coast. Workers in the city now need to follow up on these feelings and build even greater solidarity and work towards an intense member education for the serious conflicts that are clearly on the horizon for all of us. These include fighting everything from the healthcare crisis and wage stagnation, to environmental catastrophes and rising poverty. In all of these issues a strong labor movement can be a powerful tool for positive change; without it, committed activists are at an even greater handicap.