SLU-SSM nurses hold vigil for patient safety amidst nine months without a contract

Local news stations broadcast live, as the nurses and community members rally behind them, saying, “We want a contract.”
Local news stations broadcast live, as the nurses and community members rally behind them, saying, “We want a contract.”
Nivindee Fernando
Registered nurses at SSM-Saint Louis University Hospital stand alongside local labor and faith leaders while holding candles in protest of delayed contract negotiations on Feb. 29, 2024. The banner above emphasizes SSM’s shortage of nurses. (Nivindee Fernando)

SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital nurses called for a fair contract and better working conditions at a vigil on Feb. 29. The nurses have been without a contract for eight months and say a staffing shortage is affecting patient care. 

The vigil on Thursday night was organized by SLU-SSM nurses through the National Nurses Organizing Committee and National Nurses United. Labor and faith leaders joined the nurses who want hospital management to address the lack of retention and protection for permanent nurses, a shortage of necessary equipment and hefty workloads, among other concerns. Nurses and community members gave impassioned speeches throughout the night, expressing their concerns.

Gail Wanner, a registered nurse in SSM’s behavioral health department said the hospital has been pushing off negotiations and ignoring RN concerns about retention. 

RN Gail Wanner (left) gives a speech to an audience of nurses, news reporters, and faith and labor leaders on Feb. 29, 2024. “How much value is placed on respect, when SSM intentionally prolonged our contract negotiations by engaging in efforts to dismantle our union?” Wanner said.

“We need a contract that attracts and retains permanent nurses,” Wanner said. “We need a contract that protects…. nurses who are devoted to this mission. We need a contract that supports us in providing excellent care.”

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Wanner also questioned SSM Health’s commitment to their five stated values of  compassion, respect, excellence, stewardship and community. 

“We join SSM in adhering to the value of stewardship of funds, but a contract that is primarily founded on only one of our five values, is not just, nor adequate, and lacks integrity,” Wanner said. “Are not the other four values equally important to our SSM mission?”

There are thousands of registered nurses in Missouri, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. But nurses like Wanner say lack of protections and overworking means nurses are leaving the hospital industry.

 “Where is the value of excellence, when an extraordinarily capable nurse is given a 10 patient assignment in one of our departments? And on top of that, she doesn’t have access to the equipment she needs,” Wanner said. 

RN Maddie O’Eary (middle-right) stands with fellow nurses to hold up a banner for drivers and community members passing by on Grand Blvd. on Feb. 29, 2024. (Nivindee Fernando)

The candle-light vigil comes after months of stalled negotiations. Some RNs represented by the NNOC went on strike on Sept. 25, 2023, and again from Dec. 27- 28 in protest.

When qualified nurses leave, patients bear the consequences, registered nurse Maddi O’Eary said. She explained that SSM-SLU’s level one trauma center status and outpatient stem cell transplant program are important to the region, but are compromised by stalled contract negotiations. 

“The St. Louis community has entrusted us with the honor of caring for some of its most vulnerable patients,” she said. “Management must recognize that losing experienced, specialized and committed nurses is an alarming problem.”

The nurses’ contracts officially expired in June 2023. As of now, the future of negotiations is uncertain.

In a statement, SLU Hospital said they are ready to reach an agreement with the nurses and criticized NNOC leadership for turning down some bargaining dates. 

“Contract negotiations can only make progress when both sides are motivated and engaged in the process,” the statement read. “Unfortunately, NNOC leaders continue to appear more focused on their political agenda than reaching a contract that supports our valued nurses at SLU-H.”

Union representatives said the nurses have “attempted to compromise,” but SSM refuses to address their concerns about recruitment and retention.

 The vigil was concluded by Rev. Kevin D. Anthony, who noted the hospital system’s religious affiliation.

“The Bible teaches us that we should love God and our neighbor,” Anthony said. “We’re not seeing that from Saint Louis U., and so they need to do what is right and just by the workers and the patients.” 

Local news stations broadcast live, as the nurses and community members rally behind them, saying, “We want a contract.” (Nivindee Fernando)

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