Why 2023 has been the year of labor strikes

This year has been marked by labor actions across the U.S. From coast to coast, healthcare workers have participated in strikes, citing concerns about issues such as pay, staffing and recruitment. The strikes have involved workers from large health systems, including a walkout at Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente that was deemed by unions as the nation's largest healthcare worker strike. 

Now, in the last month of 2023, Becker's is taking a look at this trend.

To start, it is worth examining the number of strikes year over year. The Ithaca, N.Y.-based Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations' labor action tracker shows 115 strikes involving workers in the healthcare and social assistance sector since January 2021. This includes 39 strikes in 2022, an increase from 33 in 2021. As of Dec. 4, 43 strikes had occurred in the healthcare and social assistance sector this year. Most of these strikes have occurred in hospitals, but those in nursing homes and other healthcare facilities are also included in the data. 

"While it is very difficult to predict what will happen next, I think that the recent uptick in healthcare strikes will continue for at least the near future," Johnnie Kallas, a PhD candidate and the director of the Cornell labor action tracker, told Becker's in October. "Many of these recent strikes have emerged from the first set of contract negotiations for unionized workers since the beginning of the pandemic, which obviously exacerbated many of the issues, like understaffing, already confronting healthcare workers."

Becker's has reported on at least 27 healthcare-specific strikes in 2023. 

Most recently, more than 2,400 nurses at three HCA Healthcare hospitals in Southern California launched a five-day strike Nov. 22 in the sixth month of contract negotiations. The nurses and other medical professionals, who are represented by SEIU 121RN, work at HCA's Riverside (Calif.) Community Hospital, West Hills (Calif.) Hospital and Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks. That same week — the week of Thanksgiving — members of the Illinois Nurses Association launched a two-day strike Nov. 21 at Ascension Saint Joseph-Joliet (Ill.), their second two-day strike in three months. The union represents more than 500 nurses at the facility. The hospital is part of St. Louis-based Ascension, one of the nation's largest nonprofit and Catholic hospital systems.

While nurses are most commonly involved in strikes at hospitals, those in other roles have also taken to the picket line. For example, Members of the Committee of Interns and Residents and Mount Sinai in New York City reached a tentative agreement May 24, ending a three-day strike at NYC Health + Hospitals' Elmhurst Hospital Center. 

Additionally, tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente employees across the U.S. were involved in an October strike. This included licensed vocational nurses, emergency department technicians, radiology technicians, respiratory therapists, X-ray technicians, optometrists, certified nursing assistants, behavioral health workers, surgical technicians, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, home health aides, medical assistants, dental assistants, call center representatives and housekeepers, among other positions.

"I don't think [the issues] are entirely different [from] what we saw before [2023]," Mr. Kallas told Becker's in June. "It's pay. It's staffing. It's health and safety. I'd say those are probably the three main issues. But I think workers are now more emboldened to act on that."

He also said he has observed a shift toward healthcare workers being willing to engage in indefinite strikes, meaning they will be off the job until they reach a settlement. Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., and United Steelworkers Local 4-200, which represents about 1,700 nurses at the facility, recently reached a tentative agreement on a new labor contract. The hospital announced the tentative three-year deal Dec. 1, about four months after union members began a strike Aug. 4.

Mr. Kallas made it clear, however, that while he believes there has been a shift toward indefinite strikes, most strikes in healthcare remain of a fixed duration, meaning they are slated to last a certain number of days. 

There are at least several planned healthcare strikes in December — at University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical Center's Strong Memorial Hospital and River Campus, at Sutter Center for Psychiatry, and at three Ascension hospitals in Texas and Kansas.

Copyright © 2024 Becker's Healthcare. All Rights Reserved. Privacy Policy. Cookie Policy. Linking and Reprinting Policy.


Featured Whitepapers

Featured Webinars