Arizona’s registered nurses fight for patients in 24-hour strike
Nurses on strike in Arizona. | Lynne Sladky/AP

TUCSON, Ariz – Registered nurses at St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s Hospitals in Tucson held a one-day strike Sept. 20., marking a historic moment for the National Nurses United members. The registered nurses at Tenet-affiliated medical facilities are now urging management to invest in better recruitment and retention practices so that staff can provide improved service to patients.

About 6,500 National Nurses United members walked out at 12 Tenet facilities after working toward a first contract for a year in Arizona, and under expired contracts for months in California and Florida. “The whole point of the strike is to advocate for our patients so they can get optimal care,” said Fawn Slade, a registered nurse at St. Joseph’s in Arizona.

Like many other registered nurses on staff, Slade felt empowered by the outpouring of support that the hospital staff received. Workers from across the country bused into town to stand in solidarity with NNU members, bringing food and supplies. “This strike is the first time in Arizona history that we’ve had nurses at the bedside strike,” Slade said to People’s World.

Many of Tenet’s newer corporate policies were implemented starting in October, 2018 – which prompted employees to unionize. “Nursing is all evidence-based, and research has shown us that there is a clear link between nurse staffing levels and good patient outcomes.”

At St. Joseph’s Hospital, the staffing grid allows for eight patients per nurse in the Progressive Care Unit (PCU), which, in terms of medical urgency, Slade explains is one step below the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). According to the NNU, there are numerous research studies that indicate the optimal ratio for the PCU would actually be one nurse for every three patients.

Federal regulation requires hospitals certified to participate in Medicare to have a minimal  number of licensed registered nurses and other personnel to provide nursing care to all patients as needed. However, without giving a clear figure, it is left up to each state to determine how to ensure that staffing is appropriate to patients’ needs. As it currently stands, California is still the only state to have what the union considers a safe patient ratio law.

According to the Arizona State Board of Nursing and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 37,000 people who hold active RN licenses in Arizona do not work as nurses. A portion of these registered nurses are retired and unemployed nurses – but many of these have chosen not to work in the field any longer. “We feel that these nurses with active licenses would choose to work at bedside if there were proper staffing services to support optimal care,” says Slade, reiterating a campaign talking point.

Although she has worked as a registered nurse for over eight years, Slade is new to union organizing. “I got involved, exactly one year ago,” she recalls. Since becoming officially recognized as part of a union, Slade says that she has seen how building strength through unity has helped put advocacy into action. “It’s overwhelming to know that the struggles you are having are not yours alone.”

Tuscon’s Jobs with Justice coalition chair, Steven Valencia, told People’s World he remembered first seeing nurses from St. Joseph’s, and St. Mary’s show up to meetings a year ago. The hospital staff had just voted to be represented by a union, in the “fight for first” contract. “They talked about the future” he recalls, “and how they would like to extend organizing to other similar facilities.”

Valencia speaks to the type of solidarity building that is essential to building movements for the working class across the country. “The nurse’s campaign affects patient care and wages, but it also affects everyone else,” he reiterated, “it pushes up the floor.”

Although the workers at St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s have returned to work they will continue negotiations with Tenet. National Nurses United, alongside partnering unions, has set a new precedent for registered nurses around the country. “Our patients are our neighbors and family members,” says Slade on the importance of persevering. “When we promote better care, we promote a better community.”


Michelle Zacarias
Michelle Zacarias

Michelle Zacarias was a staff writer at People's World. A graduate of the Univ. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Zacarias invested her time in raising awareness on issues of social justice and equality. Michelle self identifies as multi-marginalized: as a Latina, a woman of color and a person with disabilities.