Just last month, union leaders at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester celebrated a new four-year contract for nurses, ending the longest nurses strike in Massachusetts history.
Now, one of the replacement nurses hired during the 10-month walkout is leading an unusual effort to oust the union.
A 55-year-old nurse, C. Richard Avola, recently filed a petition to decertify the Massachusetts Nurses Association at the hospital and helped collect enough signatures to put the issue to a vote. It was first reported by independent journalist Bill Shaner. Union members have until Feb. 25 to cast their ballots.
Avola, who lives in Clinton, said he launched the petition because he thought there was no need to strike over staffing levels at the hospital.
“I've seen other hospitals with staffing levels that were worse than ... at St. Vincent,” said Avola, who started working for the hospital last August, where he helps discharge patients. “It was no different than any other hospital that I had worked at and I didn't see why it was being targeted."
But without a union, the Massachusetts Nurses Association warned that workers could be fired for almost any reason and the hospital would no longer have any obligation to honor other terms of the contract, including requirements that the hospital maintain higher staff-to-patient ratios.
The union insists the vote is being driven by a small minority of nurses and the National Right to Work Defense Fund, a Virginia nonprofit that has fought unions across the country.
In a statement, the union said it is "confident that a vast majority of Saint Vincent nurses will choose to keep the protections of the union and the benefits of the historic four-year agreement.” Union nurses overwhelmingly approved the contract with St. Vincent's parent company, Tenet Healthcare, by a vote of 487-9.
Eve Weinbaum, a professor at UMass Amherst's Labor Center who has been following the strike and subsequent decertification effort, estimated there are about 100 to 150 decertification efforts nationwide each year, including a number that have received help from National Right to Work Defense Fund.
But many of those efforts have failed, Weinbaum noted. For instance, nurses at St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford voted against a similar effort to decertify the same union in December 2020. Weinbaum said she also expects the St. Vincent decertification effort to fall short as well.
"The nurses I've spoken with feel that the nursing staff is united," Weinbaum said. "They just got through this long strike together that they stood strong, they got a great contract, they protected patient care."
"And there's overwhelming support for the union," she said.
Still, Avola, the St. Vincent nurse leading the decortication drive, said he expects the decertification effort to succeed.
He argues the union has divided longtime union members from other nurses, like himself, who were hired during the strike. And he says they need to eliminate the union to bring the staff together.
“The wedge between us is pretty significant right now, and to go forward in healing, we need to remove the subject that was the controller of the relationship between the hospital and the nurses," he said.
The National Labor Relations Board plans to announce the results of the union vote at the end of the month.