Even in sweltering August heat, this year’s earlier pesky blizzard won’t go away. Over the weekend, Nurses United, a union that represents 1,600 registered nurses at Washington Hospital Center (WHC), voted for a one-day strike. The union is demanding that the nurses who were fired following February’s massive winter storms for not making it through the snow to work be reinstated with back pay, and that management ensures it doesn’t violate hospital policies again.

The in-person secret ballot took place over a period of three-days, from Thursday to Saturday. Of the 675 nurses who voted, 78 percent voted to strike.

“The hospital center management chose to take an illegal path and make some illegal changes in their policy by threatening nurses and ultimately firing some who failed to get to work during the historic snowstorms,” says Stephen Frum, the chief shop steward for Nurses United.

WHC management circulated a last-minute memo, just before noon on Feb. 5, as snow started accumulating, in what would be the District’s first blizzard of two that week. As City Desk has reported, the memo said, in Frum words, “despite what we’ve done in the past, if an associate is not going to get to work, you should advise them that their refusal will be considered insubordination.”

“These firings and disciplines were handed out in violation of WHC’s written snow emergency policy to nurses who made every effort to get to work during the storm, including some who missed work during the first storm but slept at the hospital to be available during the second storm,” according to a Nurses United press release.

The firings took place under a previous management team. In June and early July, WHC replaced its president, senior vice president of human resources and its chief nursing officer. Their quiet departure, after years of employment at the hospital seems unusual, Frum adds. The current president, John Sullivan is also the fourth one WHC has had in the last 15 months.

“So now we’re in a period where we’re considering what to do, hoping that this strong message of solidarity and determination will convince the employer to change their mind. They can do that any time, they can do the right thing,” Frum adds.

Despite the strike vote, the union has not notified the hospital leadership of the outcome, writes WHC spokeswoman So Young Pak in an e-mail. Pak added:

According to the Nurses United website, only 675 (or 42%) of our 1,600 nurses turned out to vote. This number does not represent the majority of Washington Hospital Center’s highly skilled nurses, and we feel that most of our nurses are actually interested in reaching a prompt and fair contract agreement, which is what we have been striving to do.

To address the nursing strike vote, we have a full contingency plan in place and will take all necessary steps, including bringing in qualified replacement nurses to care for our patients in the event of a strike.

Once Nurses United has made a decision on a day to strike, they’ll give the hospital 10 days written notice. Despite the vote, Frum says, participation in the strike is voluntary—though he suspects 90 percent of the nurses will join it. WHC has dealt with two strikes by nurses, one in 1977 and one in 2000—both involving contract negotiations. The latter union action lasted 47 days and ended in a victory for the nurses, Frum says.

Issues at WHC span back as far as early 2009, according to union activists. Just as the possible strike looms, nurses are still in the middle of negotiating an employment contract with the hospital.

File photo by Darrow Montgomery