Women News Network / February 13, 2014

by Cameron Conaway

(WNN) Altoona, Pennsylvania, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: What happens when a community’s pride and joy is a hospital that gets bought out by a $10 billion blinded-by-profit enterprise? The community protests. Nurses at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Altoona aren’t striking in freezing temperatures for increased pay; they’re striking to give their patients the care they’ve come to expect.

Altoona became an incorporated city in 1868 and just fifteen years later, in an effort to support the growing population of Blair County and the Pennsylvania Rail Road, the city established Altoona General Hospital. The hospital has changed its name (from Altoona General Hospital to Altoona Hospital to Altoona Regional Health System to, as of July 1, 2013, UPMC Altoona) but what hasn’t changed is what this hospital has meant for the city of Altoona.

From the time of its founding, this hospital has been one of our community’s largest employers. The once blossoming railroad industry is a shadow of its former self. Drugs such as heroin have hit Altoona, with its location between the major cities of Pittsburgh to the west and Philadelphia to the east, particularly hard. But the hospital, though it too has had its fair share of issues, has been a point of pride for many in this city.

As the nurses strike continued the UPMC – University of Pittsburgh Medical Center police security officers told all striking nurses, “You have been temporarily replaced.” See this video on Facebook.

So what happened? Why are nurses, many of whom have dedicated 20+ years of their lives to this hospital, out on strike in single-digit temperatures?

Because “Altoona has become ground zero in Pennsylvania for corporations’ assault on organized labor,” said Robert Miller, business representative for District 98 IAMAW.

In conservative towns like Altoona, there’s often the misperception that labor unions and strikes are all about increasing pay. The nurses, including 22-year veteran Kim Heverly, have for months been putting their voices out there in order to shape the true narrative:

“It comes down to patient care and safety. If we don’t have good ratios, nursing becomes just a series of tasks, and you may miss subtle changes in a patient’s condition that could be an early indicator of complications. You also lose those one-on-one moments of caring and compassion, which is so important in nursing.”

Another nurse who wishes to remain anonymous put it this way:

“Nurses in Pittsburgh brought up the same concerns but were essentially threatened and bullied into submission by UPMC. Because of this, UPMC thought they’d easily crush whatever fight us small town Altoona nurses could put up. Well, they’ve got another thing coming.”

UPMC Altoona has hired 270 replacements, and is paying these replacements $50/hour as opposed to the $30 made by the striking employees. They’ve also hired Huffmaster, an out-of-state strike-busting company.

I heard countless times from all nurses I interviewed that although they are willing to make many other sacrifices, they aren’t willing to sacrifice patient care. UPMC Altoona is essentially trying to increase profits by forcing already overwhelmed nurses to care for even more patients.

Frank Snyder, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, told me that what UPMC Altoona is doing to these dedicated nurses is “…the epitome of corporate bullying.” Snyder went on to say how what’s happening in Altoona is a microcosm for “A state-by-state nationwide agenda being fueled by the Koch brothers to discredit labor unions and to dismantle the basic worker rights that our country has fought and died for.”

Contract negotiations are expected to begin next week, but UPMC Altoona hospital officials—who have allegedly shown up late and then walked out of the previous two contract negotiations—have made it known that they are willing to continue bringing in the temporary agency.