Workers fight to keep the saint in St. Francis

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St. Francis Hospital is a full-service facility nestled in Milwaukee's South Side and has served the increasingly diverse working-class community since 1956. Many of the nurses and health professionals who work at St. Francis are residents of the community, and their families have been in the hospital's workforce for generations. St. Francis, along with St. Joseph Hospital in Milwaukee, was part of the Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare system until last year, when the system was bought by St. Louis-based Ascension Healthcare.

Having an outside corporation take over their community hospital was a major concern for the hospital's 1,200 workers as well as the union that represents them, the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (WFNHP). What worried union members most was Ascension's reputation for shuttering hospital services, outsourcing and violating workers' rights.

St. Francis Hospital members at the bargaining tableCommunity members and local leaders join WFNHP members at a bargaining session.

"I was concerned about the possible closing of the hospital," says Tracey Schwerdtfeger, a patient care associate at St. Francis and a WFNHP member. She has been working six months in the mental health unit but is studying to be a registered nurse. Schwerdtfeger's concern led her to get actively involved in the union's campaign to "Keep the 'saint' in St. Francis."

The campaign's goal was to ensure that Ascension would operate the hospital as a responsible corporate owner. To that end, the WFNHP circulated a petition urging Ascension Health not to cut the hospital's services or staff, decrease pension or other benefits, or outsource jobs. More than 1,000 people from the community signed the petition. WFNHP members also worked closely with community organizations and local lawmakers to create a coalition to keep the hospital a "community" hospital. "We participate in the local economy, and many of us live in the nearby neighborhoods. Any type of layoffs, service closures, or other drastic or even moderate changes to our hospital, could potentially have severe ripple effects throughout the community," says Candice Owley, WFNHP president and an AFT vice president.

Efforts like the one at St. Francis are helping AFT's nurses and health professionals to not only use collective action to secure patient care standards for the common good but also to drive a broader push to build a far-reaching grass-roots campaign to enforce their message: Communities, not corporations, are the best judge of their healthcare needs. That message comes from the AFT Nurses and Health Professionals national campaign, Patients Before Profits, which promotes transparency in healthcare quality and financial information, affordability of care, community control, and strong voice for healthcare workers in the healthcare delivery system.

"The corporation that bought the hospital is not from here, and we are well aware of that," says Schwerdtfeger. "This focus on patients before profits is absolutely necessary, because we know that what's happening here is not just happening to us. Every fight is not only for us but for all workers—that's why we are standing together."

Hard work pays off

Mary Milton, a registered nurse and president of the nurses' local at St. Francis, says the campaign that she and her fellow union members waged was the difference between being active or reactive. Milton has worked at the hospital for 39 years. When she heard that Ascension Health was taking over St. Francis, she thought about the corporation's reputation and, like Schwerdtfeger, feared the loss of services to the community.

St. Francis provides a lot to the community, says Milton. "We serve a very diverse patient population," and the people who have worked at St. Francis for years "like the hospital and are proud of the care we provide. That's why people stay—we believe in the work of this hospital."

St. Francis Hospital membersMilwaukee lawmakers show their support for the healthcare workers at St. Francis Hospital.

The feeling was mutual for those in the St. Francis community. When union members actively sought the help of the community and local leaders, they stepped up in a big way, says Milton. "Once we talked with them, people really got on board."

WFNHP and the hospital began negotiating a new contract in September; WFNHP members focused on bringing the hospital workers together with the community to keep their voice in the workplace and to succeed in keeping the South Side community strong. On the first day of bargaining, dozens of community members packed the room at the start of session to share how much the hospital and its workers meant to them.

Milton was heartened by their support: "When they all showed up to the bargaining session, it was so appreciated and it really boosted our morale."

During the bargaining sessions, several service workers and housekeepers also testified about their work at St. Francis and the importance of the community hospital. Because Ascension has outsourced food services and housekeeping at its other facilities, the service and tech members fought for protections to prevent outsourcing and salary cuts. Getting members to voice their cares and concerns was a key factor in the negotiation process.

Ultimately, Ascension gave the workers a letter of understanding that paves the way for service workers to keep their bargaining unit. In addition, they will not have to reapply for their jobs.

On Oct. 13, the nurses and health professionals at St. Francis voted overwhelming to approve a new two-year contract. "Sometimes things happen that serve as a wake-up call, making you realize that you can't be complacent," says Milton." We may have problems, but we have a union to deal with them. It's so good to have a voice."

[Adrienne Coles]