By Richard Asinof
BOSTON – Nurses from Steward Health Care hospitals in Massachusetts picketed the Park Avenue headquarters of Cerberus Capital Management in New York City on Dec. 20, voicing their anger about a pension dispute with the private equity group that owns Steward, its hospital division with 10 nonprofit hospitals in Massachusetts. Steward’s purchase of Landmark Medical Center in Woonsocket is currently under review by state regulators.
More than 250 unionized nurses joined the picket line, including nurses from Steward-owned hospitals in Massachusetts: Carney Hospital, Good Samaritan Medical Center, Holy Family Hospital, Merrimack Valley Hospital, Morton Hospital, Norwood Hospital, Quincy Medical Center and St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center. Joining them were nurses from other states who are members of National Nurses United, the largest union and professional association of nurses in the U.S., with more than 170,000 members.
To the tune of “Jingle Bells,” the nurses sang “Dogs of hell, dogs of hell,” a reference to the private equity fund’s name, Cerberus, the three-headed dog in Greek mythology that guarded the gates of hell.
Cerberus manages about $20 billion in capital and owns companies with revenue of about $40 billion. It recently acquired Freedom Group, which bills itself as the “world’s leading innovator, designer, manufacturer and marketer of firearms and ammunition.”
At issue is Steward’s management decision to set pension benefits using the nurses’ base pay, while the nurses want the pension benefits to include overtime in order to boost payments. Also in dispute are charges by the nurses that Steward is allegedly decreasing patient care, reducing staffing levels, and allegedly treating patients “like products on an assembly line,” according to a Massachusetts Nurses Association news release. Steward is cutting back on things such as how much bread, juice, milk and graham crackers it stocks for patients after the facility’s kitchen closes.
Steward, in response, said that the union is trying to extract a better pension plan than the two sides agreed to last year. The allegations are “totally fabricated,” according to Christopher Murphy, Steward spokesman. He said the union’s campaign had nothing to do with improving health care or even the conditions of their own nurses.