Dallas County

Traveling Halfway Across U.S., Striking Massachusetts Nurses Bring Fight to Dallas

The nurses traveled from Massachusetts to Dallas to rally outside the Tenet headquarters
The nurses traveled from Massachusetts to Dallas to rally outside the Tenet headquarters Steven Monacelli
Marlena Pelligrino has worked at Saint Vincent Hospital in Massachusetts for more than three decades. But in recent years, she and her colleagues have been fighting for better working conditions.

On strike for more than 120 days now, Pelligrino and her fellow nurses decided to travel halfway across the country and take the fight to their employer’s front door on Thursday.

Throughout the day, dozens of nurses rallied outside the headquarters of Tenet Healthcare, a Dallas-based for-profit company. The Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) has been locked in battle with Tenet Healthcare executives for more than two years.

The nurses say Tenet has prioritized profits over patient outcomes, and in the process, mishandled taxpayer funds to enrich executives and shareholders.

“Our backs are up against the wall,” said Pelligrino, who serves as co-chair of the MNA’s bargaining committee. “We've been forced to take a very monumental step for nurses, which is to go on strike.”

The labor dispute escalated on March 8, when some 700 nurses at Saint Vincent went on strike in response to a breakdown in negotiations with Tenet management. The nurses decried understaffing and a lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

“Throughout the pandemic, Saint Vincent Hospital has remained a nationally recognized institution where the safety and care of our patients are paramount, and our results in these areas speak for themselves,” a Tenet spokesperson said by email.

“We’ve received the petition, but as the MNA knows, there is only one path to the best outcome for the nurses of Saint Vincent Hospital, and that is to sit down at the negotiating table with the Hospital team in Massachusetts to bring this to a resolution," the spokesperson added.

Despite receiving billions in assistance under the CARES act, Tenet furloughed nurses amid the COVID-19 pandemic and posted $399 million in profit in 2020. Meanwhile, nurses say they were understaffed and under-resourced, which took a toll on patient outcomes.

“They don’t seem to understand that any mistakes or missteps we make due to understaffing or lack of PPE have names and faces attached to them with real life and death consequences,” Pelligrino said in an impassioned speech to fellow strikers and supporters in Dallas. “We will not let our patients or community down.”

"Our backs are up against the wall." - Marlena Pelligrino, Massachusetts Nurses Association

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Despite being told they would be replaced if they didn’t return to work, none of the strikers has crossed the picket line. “It just shows the stamina that nurses have to ensure that things change to help patients,” Pelligrino told the Observer. “This is a condition of humanity at this point.”

Outside of the Tenet headquarters off Dallas North Tollway, the nurses were joined by labor and healthcare activists from near and far. Dallas congressional hopeful Jessica Mason, a vocal supporter of public healthcare, joined the rally.

“As someone who worked as a medic in the Navy, and I worked alongside a lot of nurses, I know their struggle and I know what they've been going through,” Mason said.

“I couldn't imagine working in the medical field during COVID, on top of the fact corporate executives want to use taxpayer money that was supposed to go to these nurses to help build staffing needs,” she added. “Instead, they basically pocketed it and used it to do stock buybacks and to further enrich themselves.”
click to enlarge Nurses decried a lack of protective equipment and accused the company of misusing taxpayer money - STEVEN MONACELLI
Nurses decried a lack of protective equipment and accused the company of misusing taxpayer money
Steven Monacelli

Allegations of misusing taxpayer funds recently drew the attention of elected officials in Massachusetts, including two U.S. senators and two members of the House. Among them are Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Ed Markey, U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan and U.S. Rep. James McGovern.

On June 29, the lawmakers wrote an open letter to Tenet Executive Chairman and CEO Ronald Rittenmeyer, demanding an explanation about taxpayer funds allegedly used to "enrich executives and shareholders rather than meet the needs of its healthcare providers and patients" amid the pandemic.

The strike has also drawn the attention of other large unions. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the largest flight attendant union in the country, flew into Dallas to lend her support to the nurses' cause.

“This is one of the most important strikes in the country right now,” Nelson told the Observer. “We can’t let executives take government money and misuse it, let them make our lives into a commodity, and let them treat essential workers with disrespect.”

"This is one of the most important strikes in the country right now." - Sara Nelson, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA

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In a speech outside the Tenet Healthcare building, Nelson described the stakes of the fight as national in scope. “This is a national fight because every other healthcare conglomerate is saying to Tenet, ‘Don’t settle because if you do we will have to provide more staffing, too,’” Nelson said.

Alongside Nelson was Julie Hedrick, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. “Together, we represent 25,000 flight attendants, and 6,800 of those flight attendants are based here in Dallas,” Hedrick said to the crowd. “We know what it's like to care more for passengers than our management does.”

The strikers have an in-person meeting scheduled with Tenet leadership for July 9. “It’s the first in-person meeting in 15 months,” Pelligrino said.

With increasingly vocal and public support, the strikers hope to strike a deal. But if staffing issues are not addressed, the nurses vow to keep up the strike.

“It could be the chance for Tenet to stand up and do the right thing,” Pelligrino added. “You go in optimistic, and you continue to fight if you have to.”
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Steven Monacelli has been contributing to the Dallas Observer since 2020. He regularly covers local social movements and occasionally writes about food.
Contact: Steven Monacelli