St. Peter's Health clinic nurses secure a voice with union victory

In the early days of her new job at St. Peter’s Health Medical Group’s Broadway Clinic in Helena, Mont., registered nurse Hannah Sieracki couldn’t ignore the rumblings among her colleagues about management’s apathy about their concerns, the absence of lunch breaks and tampering with their timecards. “Those were red flags for me,” says Sieracki, who came from a unionized hospital.

Photo of St. Peter's Health clinic nurses smiling

It was clear to her that the nurses were ready for change in the form of a union. In fact, the nurses were already conducting an organizing campaign, and Sieracki jumped into the effort almost immediately. Their work was rewarded on Oct. 17, when the nurses at both the Broadway and North clinics made their voices heard by voting to join the Montana Nurses Association. The 70 nurses will join 300 of their peers already represented at St. Peter’s Hospital. St. Peter’s Health is a nonprofit healthcare system in Helena that serves an estimated 97,000 residents across a five-county area. The system includes an acute care hospital, physician clinics, a cancer treatment center, a 24-hour behavioral health unit, urgent care clinics, home health and hospice care, a dialysis center and ambulance services.

This victory for the nurses signifies a pivotal moment in their quest for high-quality patient care and self-advocacy. The new union strengthens the nurses’ ability to champion not only their rights but also those of their patients and the Helena community.

Sieracki says that communication with management was one the most pressing issues for the nurses. The disconnect between the nurses and management became apparent when the electronic medical record system was replaced with a new one. The rollout left many nurses dissatisfied, emphasizing the glaring gaps in accountability and communication. Wage disparity also became an issue when the nurses learned that newer hires were paid at a competitive market rate and earning more than experienced nurses. The hospital’s hiring of an anti-union consultant added another layer of tension. The consultant helped the hospital collect personal and private information on nurses to dissuade them from joining the union. The move was perceived as a betrayal of trust.

Thai Nguyen, an organizer with the MNA, noted that previous attempts to unionize the clinics had failed. But recent decisions by St. Peter’s, such as the reduction of benefits and changes to personal leave accruals and payout rates, resonated deeply with the nurses. The shift galvanized their determination to seek change.

Now that they have succeeded in unionizing, Sieracki and her fellow nurses are looking ahead to rebuilding their relationship with the management. Their aspirations are simple: to sit down, engage in constructive dialogue, and create a positive and transparent working partnership.

“Everyone’s looking for open communication,” says Sieracki. “They’ve tried hard to stop us throughout every step of this process. But now that we’ve spoken and shown them that this is something we want, I hope they honor that by sitting down and bargaining with us in good faith.”

[Adrienne Coles]