Nurses strike at St. Louis area's second-largest hospital

Thursday, December 16, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- Union nurses at St. John's Mercy Medical Center in suburban St. Louis walked off the job at 5 a.m. Wednesday after failing to reach a contract agreement with the not-for-profit Catholic hospital.

Hospital officials said operations were normal, with the typical 700 to 800 patients. Care of the patients was unaffected, said Chris Crain, chief nurse executive at the hospital.

"The transition was very organized. I believe the patients are experiencing organized care that is uninterrupted. They may be seeing some new faces, but they are experiencing their care like it's been prior to the strike this morning," Crain said.

The hospital in west St. Louis County is using a combination of replacement nurses, RNs from 18 other hospitals that are also part of the St. Louis-based Sisters of Mercy Healthy System, and union nurses who crossed the picket line.

"As physicians we're experienced in working with new and temporary nurses," Dr. Martin Bell, president of the hospital medical staff, said in a statement. "We find that they are well-trained and highly skilled professionals."

St. John's is the second-largest hospital, behind Barnes-Jewish Hospital, in the St. Louis area, with nearly 1,000 beds, more than 1,100 physicians and more than 4,700 workers.

It wasn't clear how many of the roughly 1,700 nurses were striking. About 200 walked a picket line as the walkout began. Union construction workers at the hospital also walked off the job in support of the nurses.

The registered nurses are part of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655. Local president Jim Dougherty said management refused to negotiate from Nov. 29 until Sunday, then broke off talks after seven hours.

"The hospital clearly wants this strike as punishment for the nurses," union spokesman Ed Finkelstein said. "They feel this is a way to kill the union -- let the strike fail."

The hospital said it is offering 3 percent annual raises for most RNs over a three-year contract. The hospital also doesn't believe that nurses who don't want to join the union should be required to pay the union an "agency" fee.

But Finkelstein said the main issue is patient care. Nurses, he said, want to maintain and improve a nurses committee that meets monthly to deal with issues regarding patient care -- staffing, nurse-to-patient ratios, for example. Finkelstein said the hospital wants to include technicians, other specialists and non-union nurses in the committee.

"It's the nurses that provide the care to patients bedside," Finkelstein said. "They're the voice for the patients."

Nurses at the hospital also struck for three days three years ago.

On the Net:

St. John's Mercy Medical Center,

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655,

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