In what may be the city's largest ever health care strike, hundreds of union nurses, technicians and hospital support workers gathered outside Valley Hospital and Deaconess Medical Center early this morning for a 24-hour strike, taking to the picket line over deadlocked contract negotiations.
Both hospitals will continue operating as normal during the strike. Scores of workers and supporters had arrived by 6 am, when the strike deadline passed and employees planned to walk off their shifts. With temperatures in the low teens, local members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW circle around a small tent to grab signs and warm coffee.
"Everybody line up," a voice calls in the predawn darkness.
Approximately 1,000 union hospital workers were expected to participate in the strike, set to run from 6 am until 6 am Thursday at both Valley and Deaconess hospital. Union members say recent staffing reductions have left nurses and other employees dangerously shorthanded.
Picket signs hoisted overhead, union members and supporters fall into formation, marching back and forth along the sidewalks just beyond the hospital property. Many stamp their feet or hop to keep warm. Their breath steams from their lips as they chant:
"Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Staffing cuts have got to go. Hey, hey. Ho, ho …"
Mary Robinson, a central service tech at Deaconess, says her department has lost half of its 23 positions, leaving the remaining 12 employees scrambling to cover the same workload. After nearly 30 years with the hospital, she says the issue has hit a breaking point.
"Our first priority is not to strike," she says, standing alongside the morning picketers at Valley. "It's to get our contract settled, to get the best staffing we can get, to get the best quality of care for our patients."
Hospital officials say they maintain staffing levels in accordance with national standards. Sasha Weiler, communications director for Valley and Deaconess, says in an statement both hospitals have arranged for temporary workers to cover shifts during the strike. Those workers have all the appropriate licenses and certifications.
"The hospitals will remain open with all emergency services, inpatient units, and outpatient departments staffed and available for patient care," the statement says. "All surgeries and diagnostic procedures will continue as scheduled."
Doctors at both hospitals as well as registered nurses at Deaconess, who are not represented by 1199NW, will continue working.
While Weiler stated managers expected a peaceful strike, extra security was present at the hospitals this morning. Officers in orange vests manned each parking lot entrance and doorways.
Teri Nicholson, a Valley registered nurse on the union bargaining team, says the hospital's temporary workers arrived in two busloads early this morning. Nicholson hoped the strike would encourage both sides to return to the table in the coming days to finally reach an agreement.
"I don't think there are any future [bargaining] dates," she says. "We're hoping that we'll have some by the end of this."
While disappointed the strike could not be averted, Nicholson says she appreciates the community support. She was happy with the turnout despite the early time and frigid weather.
"We're moving and there's excitement, so people aren't complaining too much yet," she says. "Once the sun comes up, it will be a lot warmer."
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart joined marchers outside Valley Hospital. He says he initially went into the lobby to march out with workers ending their shifts at 6 am, but he was told he had to leave. About 16 workers filed out as the strike deadline passed with others trickling out to join the picket line as they finished their shifts.
Stuckart says he has heard many troubling stories about how staffing cuts have impacted the local hospitals. He sees the strike as an important stance against the "for-profit" health care system.
"This is a statement," he says, "about how we care as a community about patient care."
See more photos from the strike below: