Historic New York doctors’ strike points to growing labor movement
If residents of Mass General Brigham in Boston vote to unionize in an election that begins next week, a record 20% of all medical residents in the United States would have union representation, said Sunyata Altenor, gatekeeper. word of the Committee of Trainees and Residents.
The group now represents more than 27,000 medical residents and fellows across the United States. Eight thousand of them joined after 2019 — an unprecedented rate, Altenor said.
Last year, a group of 1,300 medical residents in California became the first in decades to authorize a strike, despite being awarded new contracts before leaving work, according to the Trainee and Resident Committee. A similar situation unfolded earlier this month at hospitals in Flushing and Jamaica, also in Queens, just hours before residents began a strike.
And there is still the looming possibility of an exit of 500 residents from two private hospitals in Manhattan, after doctors announced on Monday that they had voted to authorize a strike.
Rebecca Givan, associate professor of labor studies and labor relations at Rutgers University, linked the trend of exposure from the Covid pandemic to understaffing and unsafe working conditions in US hospitals. United.
Elmhurst Hospital was one of the early epicenters of the pandemic, serving as an indicator of the rapid crushing of the US healthcare system by Covid. At one point in the first wave of the pandemic, the hospital saw more than a dozen patients die in 24 hours.
But Givan said the push to unionize is also part of a broader generational shift of young people becoming more aware of systemic inequalities in the workforce — not just a phenomenon unique to the health care sector. Similar waves swept through legislative chambers, newsrooms and tech companies.
“We are seeing a lot of young, highly educated workers joining unions…in vastly increased numbers,” she said in an interview.
At Elmhurst, a public hospital that primarily serves low-income and immigrant communities, union members said a typical first-year resident earned $68,000. The same resident would earn thousands more across the East River at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, even though the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai operates both residency programs.
“It’s like, basically, Mount Sinai is saying this community doesn’t matter,” internal medicine resident Joya Dupre said in a statement on the first day of the strike. “Like we, as people of Elmhurst, don’t matter, as largely immigrant union doctors.”
Residents who picketed the hospital’s main entrance this week held up cherry-red noisemakers and signs in English and Spanish that spoke of their frustrations.
“BEWARE OF THE GUARDIANS,” read a sign.
“WHY NOT ELMHURST,” asked another.
Between pay raises, a $2,000 ratification bonus and benefits, residents of Elmhurst agreement in principle satisfied the demand for pay parity with their non-unionized counterparts at Mount Sinai Hospital, according to the union. Contract negotiations had lasted about 11 months.
Givan said the residents’ success could inspire similar action across the country among housekeeping staff, a catch-all term for doctors in residence.
“It’s possible this is the start of housekeeping staff also saying, ‘We have to be prepared to strike for patient care if we really want to win improvements,'” Givan said. “I’m sure the house staff across the country are very, very attentive.”
But there are several ways hospitals can avoid a growing union presence on their wings. Residency programs typically last three to four years, and organizing campaigns take about a year. That means some hospitals are responding to resident grievances in the meantime, Altenor of the Trainee and Resident Committee said.
Some residents worry that union activity will damage their relationships with treating physicians, who supervise them at work and provide them with key letters of recommendation for the next stage of their medical career. At hospitals in Flushing and Jamaica, residents reported threats and retaliation after authorizing a strike. The dynamic speaks to long-held attitudes about residency programs and the working conditions residents are expected to endure.
“Residency training has not changed much in the past 100 years,” Uchenna Chinakwe, a resident physician in Jamaica, said in a statement.
Union members have also accused health systems that run multiple residency programs of paying non-union residents more or giving them special benefits.
Sarah Hafuth, a first-year psychiatry resident at Elmhurst, said Icahn Mount Sinai appears to pay higher salaries in residency programs where doctors aren’t unionized to discourage them from unionizing.
Residents of the flagship Mount Sinai Hospital, located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, get free Uber rides to and from the hospital between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., Hafuth said. Residents of Elmhurst had requested the same benefit, but their interim contract only provides for the establishment of a transport committee to make recommendations on the matter.
Even within the city’s public Health + Hospitals system, Icahn Mount Sinai paid first-year residents at Queens Hospital more than Elmhurst residents, Hafuth said. Both hospitals primarily serve low-income patients.
Residents said the same gap existed between Mount Sinai Hospital and two of the system’s other Manhattan hospitals, Mount Sinai Morningside and Mount Sinai West.
“Sinai has maintained a two-tier residency system for too long,” Morningside/West resident Brian Brown said in a statement.
And that could cause hundreds of Morningside and West residents to quit their jobs in the days or weeks to come — more fodder for the history books and for doctors who are unionized or want to be.