Nurses on Strike

NURSES STRIKE IN WILKES-BARRE

Try to imagine how hard a strike is. Think of a place you worked… one that treated most people wrong. Imagine you and your coworkers, up late all night for weeks, planning a strike. Excitement, anticipation, fear. Then comes the day. You report to work as normal, but you don’t go inside. Instead, you and your coworkers stand right outside, telling the rest of the world what it’s like in there. Your boss comes out and looks you in the eye, but you’ve already gone too far to back down now.

In July 2014, I went to support a 5-day nurses’ strike at the Wilkes-Barre General Hospital. Everyone should understand why the nurses are fighting.

There are different kind of unions. You can look at it as 2 categories. The top-down, business-style union, where workers pay dues and union bosses call the shots. Then there’s the grassroots, bottom-up type, where regular workers are in charge. Where the word ‘union’ is literal: unity of the workers.

This was definitely grassroots. I spent nearly 24 hours there, and I saw the nurses taking charge, and the PASNAP* union organizers assisting them. From planning in the “strike house” (a small half-double rented one block away from the hospital for the strike), to coordinating people and materials at the picket line, to speaking at the daily rallies- nurses took charge. Many of them seemed… comfortable. Like this wasn’t their first time around the block.

Many of them seemed… comfortable. Like this wasn’t their first time around the block.

It was hazy-humid, and pushing 90, but the “strike house” had hand-warmers decorating the walls. It was a joke, a reminder that their other strikes have been in the dead of winter.

Demands

This was really cool because you’ve got a regular people, fighting a giant that has it out for them. They weren’t all on the picket line at once, but ~400 of them were on strike. So what were they fighting for? To get a contract; they want changes, and they want them in writing. Here’s some of the big ones:

  • Ratios. That means, how many patients is each nurse caring for. For safety, it should be 4-to-1 in the day, and 6-to-1 at night, max. In profit-driven hospitals, they’re in charge of 7 – 10. This isn’t enough time per patient, which hurts everyone (except stockholders).
  • Mandatory Overtime. It’s illegal in Pennsylvania to force overtime on nurses. CHS continues to break the law, and has never been penalized. When one person calls out, they call it an “emergency” and mandate everyone else to overtime. Think about that- when your mom is in the hospital, do you want the nurse taking care of her to be working overtime against their will?
  • Health Insurance. The nurses have terrible insurance. Don’t care much? Look at it this way, they are constantly exposed to diseases, and if they can’t afford to treat them, then they can potentially spread them to others. Regardless, do we really live in a world where nurses can’t afford to go to the hospital??

While I was there, I interviewed Fran Prusinki (RN). She explained the seriousness of the nurses.

Fran Prusinki, RN
Fran Prusinki, RN. Photo courtesy of Media Mobilizing Project.

This is our heritage and we take it very seriously.“Our region, this is where coal mine unions came from. My grandfather worked in the mine. You have that history, and we’re very serious about our history. You had the garment workers, railroad workers, the coal mines here, where the 8 hr day came from. My mother said that when the bell rang for the mine, everyone went down there to see if their loved ones had survived. She’d talk about seeing bodies put on the porch of neighbors.

They died for unions. They died for 8 hour workdays. They died for workers’ rights.

This is where you got the right to take lunch and to take breaks. Take it. People died for this. They died for unions. They died for 8 hour workdays. They died for workers’ rights.

There’s bloody history here and you’re part of it. Respect it and honor it.”

Why Nurses?

Most unions are shrinking, but nursing & healthcare unions are growing. Why is that?

  • The healthcare industry is growing.
  • They are not easily replaced, so they have power.
  • Healthcare unions have been aggressive about new organizing.

It’s more than that, though. Nurses want unions. An organizer from another PA healthcare union told me, “If you go and ask every nurse in a hospital, ‘do you want a union?’, without buttering it up, you get 80% yes’s. From then on, it’s about fighting the boss’s fear tactics”.

Why do nurses want a union so much more than other workers, though? A lot of workers are mistreated, and nurses make a better wage than most blue collar workers. I asked around about this, and one answer stood out out to me- nurses put themselves through school, and expect to be treated like professionals.

This is a controversial idea to union activists. After all, the point of unions (to a lot of people) is that non-professional deserve good jobs too. But in organizing, you can’t underestimate the power of people’s own expectations. If someone thinks “this is all I deserve”, they’ll never fight for something better. On the other hand, if someone thinks “I deserve so much more than this”, then they are ready to do something about it.

“Community Health Systems”

It helps that nobody likes Community Health Systems (CHS), the Fortune 500 company from Tennessee that bought Wilkes-Barre General in ’09. It had been a community hospital, but CHS is all about profit. They’ve been cutting staff, and coming straight to your room to collect copays.

They run 206 hospitals in 29 states. They buy up hospitals, often targeting poor rural areas, where people have very few options. They have a standard playbook, downsizing and shutting down departments to maximize profit.

The union has been really smart about fighting them. They send news from Wilkes-Barre to run in the Tennessee papers, and have toured to other states where CHS operates.

Wilkes-Barre Support

It was awesome seeing how many people are on their side. Doctors gave kind words and food in public, making sure to be seen by the hospital. Patients talked to the nurses and signed petitions at the doors. Car after car that went by laid on the horn. All three local newspapers gave great, front-page coverage. Union drivers refused make deliveries. To top it off, train operators stopped an engine on a nearby overpass, laying on the air horn while the crowd screamed in excitement.

Bill Cruice, the staff director, summed it up. “There’s a lot of pressure to cut costs. Instead of cutting CEO pay, cutting into insurance company profits, or pharmaceutical profits, they’re going to cut where they think it’s easiest- from you, your family and your patients. Unless we fight back.”

I think that’s the basic message. Whether it’s at work or with the government. Unless we can be like the nurses, we’re the easiest pickin’s.

 

 

 

Note: They ended their 5 day strike, but the company is still trying to break the union. No contract has been signed.

*PASNAP is the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses & Allied Professionals.  www.pennanurses.org

Thanks to PASNAP and Media Mobilzing Project.