President Trump has declared this the era of “America first,” but for some unions — pressured by corporate forces at home — the hope for salvation lies in stronger ties to Europe.
Last week a delegation from the New York State Nurses Association traveled to Germany to meet with union health care leaders there.
The goal was to address a common foe: Fresenius Medical Care, a multinational for-profit health care enterprise headquartered in Germany but with hospitals and private clinics dotted around the globe, including New York.
For several years, NYSNA nurses and health care technicians and assistants from 1199 Service Employees International Union have tried without success to bargain new contracts with Fresenius for the company’s five dialysis centers around the city.
The major issues for NYSNA have focused less on wages than on the union’s request to give weight to nurses’ input on staffing and patient-care issues.
In all its contracts with other health care companies across the state, NYSNA said, its nurses are part of a committee that gives feedback to management around such issues and patient concerns based on their observations and interactions with clients.
According to the union, however, Fresenius has resisted any model that takes account of nurses’ input and feedback. And 1199 SEIU said has wages and benefits problems with Fresenius.
Perhaps the greatest sticking point for both NYSNA and 1199 is Fresenius’ new “mega-clinic” in Park Slope, known as Degraw for the street it’s on.
The unions charge that Fresenius — a for-profit company that made $1 billion in profits last year — initially promised to staff the new facility with union workers. That would have saved the jobs of their members in the company’s existing, smaller clinics, some of which will likely close as patients are shifted to the new facility.
But now, say the unions, after roughly two years at the bargaining table, Fresenius has not only taken that promise away, it also insists on a contract promising there will be no effort to unionize workers at the Degraw dialysis center.
That, they say, amounts to union-busting, a prospect that has inspired them to call for a one-day job action in response.
From 4 a.m. through the evening Monday, the nurses, nursing assistants, social workers, medical clerks and other staff at five Fresnius dialysis centers will be on strike. Those most affected will be the facilities’ thousands of patients, all of them in various stages of kidney failure.
“Health care workers do not take strikes lightly,” said 1199 SEIU executive vice president Laurie Vallone. “We’ve tried really hard to work with [the company] in so many ways. It’s just been a series of frustrations, one after the other.”
While undertaking a traditional union response at home in New York — one they hope will bring out the public and political support from elected officials at a Monday noon rally outside a Brooklyn clinic on Atlantic Ave. — they’ve opened up another front in Europe.
“Fresenius is based in Germany, and unions have a lot more voice and say in Europe,” said Eric Smith, area director and negotiator for NYSNA. “The main health care union over there, Ver.di, is having many of the same staffing issues that we are at Fresenius hospitals and clinics.”
Two NYSNA reps traveled to Berlin and Frankfurt last week and met with Ver.di reps, who had a job action of their own going on at a Fresenius hospital.
The main goal of the visit was to sit down with Niko Stumpfoegger, the union’s director of health services and also a member of the Fresenius board.
Stumpfoegger also sits on the European Workers Council, and he promised NYSNA to bring up the nurses’ struggle when the safety board meets next month.
“In Germany, thanks to the Workers Council that has input into actual corporations, Fresenius has to listen to the union in a much more formal way,” Smith said. “We’re crying out to Germany for help to say this company is really not respecting unions in New York, that they are converting union jobs to non-union in a new clinic in an illegal way, and we need their help.”
Worldwide, Fresenius employees 110,530 workers, and 60,000 of them are in clinics across the U.S. – in Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, Ohio and Massachusetts, as well as New York.
Its domination of the kidney care market — a rapidly growing sector of the health care industry due to widespread diabetes and high blood pressure — was actually lampooned by late-night host John Oliver recently, who did a segment on Fresenius and its main competitor, DaVita.
A spokeswoman for Fresenius said its negotiations over the past years with both unions were done in good faith.
“We have extended equitable contract offers that increase wages and protect certain union health and pension funds. Our goal, just as it has been since the start of negotiations, is to reach a fair agreement that reflects the tremendous value our employees bring to our company and the patients they care for. Despite the effort to pressure the company by disrupting essential dialysis services in our communities, we welcome continued discussions to reach an agreement,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.
“Above all, our focus is on the continued care of our patients … We have a plan in place to ensure our patients will receive the life-sustaining care they need despite any union actions that may occur during our ongoing negotiations.”
Fresenius nurse Gloria O’Neill said the last thing staffers want to do is go on strike — even for a day.
Her Brooklyn clinic, where she says she is often the only nurse on duty all morning, serves severely ill patients from a nearby nursing home. None of them is ambulatory, O’Neill said.
“We see them three times a week, for years at a time,” O’Neill said. “There is a very close bond with them. They’re often brought in alone; some don’t have any family at all.
“Everything we do is for our patients, [but] this company doesn’t even want to hear our feedback on patient care. We are there to advocate for our patients. That’s why this is so important.”
The nurses have a strike protocol in place that designates at least one of them to be on call at each clinic. If there is a patient emergency, the nurse is allowed to cross the picket line to provide treatment.
“We gave the names to the company,” Smith said. “It’s our understanding they have moved most of their Monday patients to Sunday, but in the event there is an emergency, a NYSNA nurse will be there to provide patient care, even during the strike.”
N.Y. nurses in union fight with German healthcare company