A remarkable story in the Buffalo News caught my eye a couple of weeks back, featuring the selfless union workforce of the city’s Catholic Health System hospitals.
When Catholic Health asked employees last week if they would volunteer to work with Covid-19 patients, 150 employees quickly said yes.
That number jumped to 500 on Friday and rose to 700 on Saturday.
By Sunday, some 900 Catholic Health employees – respiratory therapists, food service workers, housekeepers, registered nurses, nurse’s aids, secretaries, X-ray technicians and receptionists among them.
“Here’s the part that makes me emotional,” said Mark Sullivan, Catholic Health’s president and CEO. “They volunteered and thought in the beginning that they weren’t going to get paid. They were going to take on the shifts for free.”
Maybe this shouldn’t have been such a surprise. After all, the nurses, techs and others staffing the hospital feel a strong calling to their work. And not only that: they feel appreciated and respected by management. That wasn’t always the case.
The Catholic Health System (CHS) in Buffalo and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) has built a strong labor-management partnership that grew out of contentious bargaining in 2016. For the past four years, the two CWA locals that represent nurses, techs, clerical, and service workers in three Buffalo hospitals have navigated a relationship-building process with CHS management facilitated by Michigan State University. In this moment of crisis, the partnership has paid great dividends for the health system.
One of the CHS hospitals, St. Joseph’s, was designated as a Coronavirus center. When the nurses’ union and management got word of this, they immediately put together a labor-management meeting to figure out how to implement the needed changes across the system. As a Coronavirus center, they had to find workers that would volunteer to stay in the hospital, discuss pay differentials, and be more flexible about job titles and responsibilities than in ordinary times. The relationship of trust and transparency between the union and management meant within two days, the unions were already putting out the call for volunteers, and were swamped with nurses stepping up.
“It’s times like this when people shine,” said Deborah Arnet, an RN and president of CWA Local 1133. Though she acknowledged that members were anxious about the potential wave of sick people about to come to the hospital, she was proud of the numbers of union members stepping up in the crisis.