Shenandoah Valley Healthcare Workers Need a Union


Hugh Stephenson contributes this report on the state of the Sentara/RMH hospital in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a member of Socialist Resurgence


The world is entering its third year of covid-19. Gone are the “Ra Ra Front Line Workers” headlines of the bourgeois press.

Gone are gratitudes by Democratic and Republican Party politicians for front line workers. Entering into COVID’s third year, politicians of both bourgeois parties attack those same front line workers for daring to stand up to demands placed on them, demands that put their lives at unnecessary risk.

Both Capitalist Parties Show Disdain for the Working Class – Including the Democrats

In Chicago, the Democratic Party-run city shut down schools because they rejected teacher’s union demand for worker and child safety through remote schooling-the latest COVID upsurge be damned.

In NYC, its newly-installed Democratic mayor attacked businesses returning to employee work-from-home because of the impact working from home will have on local restaurants and street vendors. The mayor is putting interests of the petite bourgeoisie above the lives of workers.

In Virginia, the new governor is threatening to remove vaccine and mask mandates, putting all workers at greater risk of succumbing to the deadly virus.

Such a move will put an already besieged healthcare system at greater risk of breaking down, as has happened in other parts of the United States. And make no mistake, local hospitals are breaking down under the new COVID spike.

And what of healthcare workers in our area? For years, RMH/Sentara has attacked its workers with firings and a hostile work environment.

Sentara’s slashing of benefits and wages created a stampede of experienced doctors, nurses, and support staff out of Harrisonburg, leaving the area’s primary health facility at the whims of inexperienced and overworked staff.

As a result, a staff already taxed by inhumane demands and lower pay was slammed by COVID patients. The timing is horrific.

What happened/How did we get here?

RMH built its new hospital buildings largely funded by bonds. When the market crashed in 2008 and bonds took a dive, RMH was in financial crisis and had to sell.

Sentara stepped in and gobbled up the hospital. Having a healthcare system tied to the anarchy of the capitalist market has done great harm to residents of the Valley, as Sentara’s actions since the purchase has born out.

Nationally, hospital conglomerates have gobbled up almost all community health centers over the past few decades. As communists, we don’t necessarily oppose this concentration as it brings workers together into larger groupings and economy of scale offers its own benefits.

Problems with such mergers are several. Hospital conglomerates are less responsive to community needs as they apply similar methods throughout its system. A country hospital, like RMH, and a city hospital simply have different demands placed upon them.

Sentara has forced RMH to operate like other hospitals in the network, most of which are not areas like the Shenandoah Valley. Healthcare conglomerates tend toward local monopolies and eventually drive worker wages and benefits downward while at the same time, increasing costs to patients. These two scenarios occurred at Sentara/RMH.

And What are the Problems?

Sentara immediately fired experienced nurses and replaced them with recent nursing school graduates. This is very dangerous to patient care but good for the hospital profits.

An ER is not the place to staff all new nurses; mentors are needed to help them gain experience. Sentara has slashed vacation time for doctors, many of whom are from other continents, they no longer have time to visit family in their home country.

Sentara requires purchasing inexpensive and shoddy supplies which puts patients at risk, but is good for hospital profits. Even the local newspaper, the Daily Record, notoriously filled with right wing editorials, and no friend of workers, has run a series of articles documenting the decline of RMH since Sentara took over.

Dr. Sease, a community respected doctor and recently retired, took purchased a series of advertisements documenting the problems at RMH.

In 2017, a nurse took Sentara to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for age discrimination. The NLRB, which almost always rules in favor of the bosses, sided with the nurse. For the NLRB to side with the nurse is evidence just how bad Sentara is treating its staff.

Notice of the NLRB settlement

She was reinstated with back pay and received her old job back. The hospital was forced to post fliers regarding the settlement in employee areas.

What is to be done?

While all avenues should be pursued against unfair labor practices, the NLRB is not the best route workers can take to defend their rights, wages, and interests. They almost always side with the employer.

We must look to ourselves. Only workers will defend their own interests. In recent years, starting before COVID hit, hospital employees around the country are organizing to fight back against mistreatment of hospital staff and poor patient care.

Workers at New York-Presbyterian, nurses at Beaumont hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan are two examples. And it isn’t all about pay. As Stephanie Goldberg writes in Modern Healthcare:

During the pandemic, unions representing nurses and other front-line medical staffers have stepped forward to advocate aggressively on behalf of their members. They’ve called attention to shortages of personal protective equipment and staffing ratios that they say endanger both workers and patients. In some cases, they’ve won paid sick leave and hazard pay—and nonunion workers are watching.

Sentara employees will benefit from a union. Individual workers, on their own just can’t match the power of the employer. The “game” is uneven. The employer can silence employees through mistreatment and firings.

Without a union, employers can cut pay, eliminate benefits, change working conditions, and fire workers for no reason. Sentara employees, and all workers in the Valley, can look across West Virginia’s border for a lesson on how effective unions can defend worker rights and improve pay.

Its teachers union stood up to state government and went on strike, thereby forced improvements for themselves, students, and all WV government workers.

Organizing is not an easy fight. Hospitals are hiring anti-union companies to fight worker organizing just as companies in other industries are doing. It takes time and energy but it’s the only way to defend workers’ interests.

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