Nurses at Rochester General Hospital (RGH) have had enough. At the beginning of August, after a nearly year-long battle with the hospital’s administration over safe staffing levels, members of the Rochester Union of Nurses and Allied Professionals (RUNAP) voted to strike. But how did we get here? And what exactly are the nurses at RGH fighting for?
For the nurses at Rochester General Hospital, the COVID-19 pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back. For years, they’ve been pushing back against hospital administration, calling attention to the fact that the hospital has been chronically and critically understaffed. In fact, according to nurses at RGH, the administration has a track record of overreporting its staffing numbers to the state, exaggerating the number of nurses staffing each hospital unit. While most hospital nurses are assigned to four patients at a time, Rochester nurses have reported being assigned to as many as nine patients, more than double a typical caseload. The patient outcomes tell the real story: Hospital-acquired infections and pressure wounds, both indicators of quality care, are rampant at RGH.
In response to the unsafe staffing and untenable working conditions, Rochester nurses held their first union meetings in July 2021. A year later, they held their first union elections. But in that time—and in the time since—Rochester General Hospital has run a vicious anti-union campaign, telling potential union members that “the union isn’t going to help,” and that “the union might negotiate your pension away.” Not only are these statements untrue, but they also corroborate what recent labor filings have shown: the Rochester General Hospital is the third largest union buster in the country.
This past August, after months of negotiations—marred by a slow-moving administration clearly attempting to exhaust the bargaining committee—the Rochester Union of Nurses and Allied Professionals decided to strike. On August 3rd and 4th, they held a two-day strike. Once again, they called on RGH to update its staffing practices, to end unsafe working conditions for nurses, and to make policy decisions that would have a positive impact on patient outcomes.
The strike was widely attended by nurses and members of the Rochester community—many nurses who did not vote in favor of the union even joined the picket line. For many joining in the action, this was not only about changing working conditions but also taking back a hospital that used to be a family. Several nurses described RGH as having been a family or community-like workplace in the past, but as turnover rates have gone up and staffing numbers have down, that familiar feeling has been lost.
While RUNAP and members of the greater Rochester community were hopeful a strike would change the administration’s position on the ongoing staffing shortages and working conditions for nurses, that hasn’t been the case. The hospital continues to regularly understaff units and has doubled down on the narrative that hospital conditions are up to par, and the nurses are just money-hungry. RUNAP, though, says it will just continue to fight the fight that it’s been fighting. Lindsay, an operating room nurse at Rochester General Hospital had this to say about management’s challenges to the formation of the union, and about the union’s work so far: “They said we’d lose “the family feel” if we unionized, but they were wrong. RGH lost that feeling of being a family years ago but now it’s back and stronger than it has ever been! I’ve met so many amazing ppl on this journey, many of whom I would’ve never even known if we didn’t all come together the way that we have. I love you all and let’s keep the momentum going and keep fighting tooth and nail for our patients, for the community, and for ourselves.”
Learn more about RUNAP’s fight to ensure safe staffing numbers, improve working conditions at Rochester General Hospital, and how you can support their work here.