“The workers united will never be defeated,” the picket line chant goes. The words rang in my head as I hiked up the hill outside Maui Memorial Medical Center on February 23.
It was the day after nearly 500 employees of Maui Health, represented by the United Public Workers union, walked off the job and began organized picketing outside Maui Memorial, Kula Hospital, Kula Clinic, and Lana`i Community Hospital to fight for better pay and working conditions.
Going on strike without pay isn’t an easy decision. In a County where more than half of families don’t earn more than the average income needed to afford the household survival budget, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a last resort.
So, I thought, the least I could do is walk with them and listen to those who would sacrifice so much. And after each healthcare worker’s tale of being unappreciated, undervalued, and exploited, I found myself with little to offer back but my solidarity as a fellow worker and the well trod slogan: “The workers united will never be defeated.”
Sometimes I was met with cheers, and other times, the tired monotone, “We need that positivity.”
Strikes are David versus Goliath stories. One can see why: Maui Health is a Kaiser Hospital Foundations affiliate. Kaiser Hospital Foundations reported more than $32 billion in revenue in 2021, according to the latest publicly available information. Maui Health receives more than $10 million annually in subsidies from the state of Hawai`i.
It has plans for multi-million dollar capital improvement projects. While Maui Health CEO salary is not readily available (just like any financial audits which Maui Health must legally submit to as a condition for receiving state subsidies), similar positions in Hawai`i have been reported to make in the range of $300,000 to $2.7 million annually.
Ask a UPW worker on strike what they earn.
“In 2018, I started making $16.32 [an hour] when I moved here from California,” said intensive care unit nurse aide Allen Moreno. “I lost 50 percent of my wage. I came from Kaiser from Santa Clara and at the present time, I don’t make over $21 an hour.”
“A lot of us in the UPW don’t get out of the $20s,” even with the raises offered by Maui Health, he added.
Or, ask a worker what they didn’t earn.
“Me and my family, we have had that sickness,” said Eugenia Valeria, a caregiver at Maui Memorial Medical Center. “I was having my patient coughing in my face because the patient couldn’t eat by himself. I got COVID and the sad thing about it, my husband almost died because of it, because of caring for my patients, and passed also to my daughter. She was supposed to be celebrating her 18th birthday and during COVID, we’re all in our house, no celebration, nothing…We worked without hazard payment, and we’re still there to take care of our ‘ohana. It’s so sad after all our hard work, the management doesn’t see it.”
These comments were given on March 10, during testimony at a County Council meeting where the Council voted unanimously to pass Resolution 21-105 Supporting Maui County’s Healthcare Workers And Urging Maui Health System To Resolve The Labor Dispute With Them. (Full disclosure: I am a policy analyst for Councilmember Gabe Johnson and worked on Resolution 23-105. I write this as a private citizen.)
Count me with the workers who do not receive goliath subsidies from the state or six-to-seven-figure salaries; with the workers who strive in a system that makes it so that more than half of us can’t even afford to live.
There are a lot of us, and as income inequality grows in Hawai`i and the world, and more land and capital is scooped up for playgrounds for the unfathomably rich, worker solidarity is increasingly important.
Strikes are important reminders of worker power. A strike is an inspiration to all workers, and all workers have common ground with those on the picket line.
I’ll paraphrase my boss quoting his union-leader mom: “This is an economic engine, but workers are the gasoline in that engine. No gas, no go. No workers, no go.”
There are signs the tank is on E. Shortly after the strike was announced, Maui Health stated to the media that there would be no impact to its services. Reporters found that statement untrue. Nurses were doing the work of housekeepers, and trash and laundry was not taken care of.
Weeks after giving a “last, best, and final offer” (and letting some 500 its workers go without pay for a couple weeks), Maui Health somehow found it had the resources for a better offer.
As of press time, the union continues picketing and holding out for an offer that they consider fair. If history is any indicator, that offer will come.
After all, the workers united will never be defeated.