Red Cross workers in northeast Ohio remain on strike, with no negotiations in sight. (Photo: Tammy Lettieri)
In Red Cross Strike, Management Squeezes the Last Drop of Blood

Red Cross workers in northeast Ohio remain on strike, with no negotiations in sight. The 200 blood collection technicians and other workers are frustrated because management refuses to come to the table. Working without a contract since May 2011, the Teamsters Local 507 members went on strike February 14 over donor and worker safety, working conditions, pay, and health insurance.

The 19 affected counties contain 57 hospitals that the Red Cross supplies with blood and blood products. Donor and worker safety have become issues as blood drives are frequently understaffed, with fewer workers expected to process more donors with the same amount of care and diligence. Donor safety and the donation experience can be compromised by staff trying to do their job too quickly and under the constant prodding of supervisors to “get donors through.”

Understaffing affects not only care, but customer service. Seasoned staff have friendly relationships with donors, and donors become accustomed to certain workers, and appreciate the familiar interaction. But when there are not enough staff, customer service is inadequate, and staff morale suffers as well.

Diligence, Unrewarded

The Red Cross has very strict rules put forth by the Food and Drug Administration for blood collection. This is not a job where you can “cut corners,” as all workers take the regulations seriously. But without enough staff, workers choose to work safely, sometimes leading to a longer donor wait time.

At times, staff, working at a distracted pace with a needle in hand, can become a danger to themselves and others. Overstretched workers aren’t as watchful to see if donors are having a bad reaction, leaving open the potential for serious injury. Twelve- to 14-hour days on the road wear on the senses.

Workers have seen no wage increase since 2010, making the proposal of an almost 400 percent increase in what they pay for the Red Cross health insurance amount to a pay cut.

These workers desperately want the public to know their issues but fear voicing their side to the media with their names attached. One striking worker posted on Facebook:

I miss my job, my donors, our volunteers and WORKING. The Red Cross makes it sound as though we are unreasonable idiots. I feel like this is union busting and it has to stop. All we want is Teamster health insurance, a fair wage and fair treatment. Why does the company want us to look bad? In the meantime, they are messing with their own reputation and donor base.

Ninety percent of those who began the strike three weeks ago are still out, though management inflated the numbers of line-crossers to the media. Red Cross is remaining open with shorter hours and continuing a small number of blood drives staffed by supervisors and the few members that have crossed the picket line. But management is coming nowhere close to collecting the normal 800-900 pints of blood per day.

Counting on Confusion

The Red Cross counts on the reputation of the Disaster Services division to turn around any negative press it may receive, painting the workers as “greedy union thugs.” The public is concerned that strikers are letting people die by not collecting blood, when, in reality, blood supplies are at a healthy level. The Red Cross, prior to the strike, made contingencies to procure blood from other regions if it was needed.

This has been a practice long before the strike, so the blood supply was never in danger in the Northeast Ohio area. A nurse at the Cleveland Clinic was not even aware of the rumored “blood shortage,” reporting that a patient was given 20 units on a recent shift she worked. Arrangements were made prior to the strike to get blood from other regions if needed.

Profits from Volunteers’ Blood

The Blood Services side of Red Cross is a multi-million-dollar business that collects blood from volunteers and sells it to hospitals. Management worries about profits, even though it is a non-profit organization.

The fact that high-ranking executives from local media are on the Red Cross board of directors allows one hand to wash the other, and neither party wants to lose the business relationship. If the public were more aware of working conditions, a greater outpouring of support would be sure to follow. Youngstown workers were joined by fellow Teamsters on the picket line last Saturday.

Understaffing and benefit cuts are an epidemic throughout Red Cross that does not seem to be going away anytime soon.

Seven unions coordinated a six-state strike at Red Cross in 2010, in which about 1,200 workers walked out. From California to Connecticut, workers protested Red Cross’s drastic escalation of health care costs and speedup demands. Red Cross workers struck in New Jersey over similar demands last year.

In Ohio, the workers refuse to return to the same conditions they had, and all the time they have spent on strike just makes them want to hold out longer.

This article was originally published by Labor Notes.