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An ER Nurse, Fired for Demanding Protective Equipment, Fights for his Job

Cliff Willmeng, a registered nurse in Minneapolis and newly-elected board member of the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA), was fired from his job at United Hospital, Allina Health Corporation for standing up for his and his coworkers’ safety. Today, he is fighting for his job, safer working conditions, and a new anti-racist labor movement.

Tre Kwon

December 14, 2020
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The following is a conversation between Cliff and Tre Kwon, a nurse and member of Left Voice. It has been edited for clarity. To support, visit Defend Frontline Workers: Bring Back Cliff!. Donate to Cliff Willmeng Legal Defense Fund, and sign the petition to Allina Health, demanding they #BringBackCliff.

When you were fired in May 2020, you wrote, “Our task, contrary to the corporate coercion so desperate to keep us in a state of subjugation, is to organize, envision and struggle and to craft our own power during this moment of global crisis. If we do it correctly, we have the potential to build healthcare that’s powered by people and that opens more doors and potential than this statement has time to address. This goal will inform our actions and intentions from this point in time.” How do you feel hearing these words today, as you’re fighting for reinstatement?

It’s interesting. I hadn’t heard those words since I wrote them six months ago. I think the ideas hold water. At the time of being fired, it was a real gut-punch to me, my family, and coworkers. It felt like a public hanging of a union steward and somebody who was involved in campaigns to protect healthcare workers. 2020 revealed a couple of very important things to me. First, we would often speculate that the employers would be willing to lead us into harmful situations that could potentially even kill us. I think that my understanding of that was maybe a little more academic before 2020, but during the course of the first months of the pandemic, it became real clear.

When those essential workers — all of us — stayed home, the entire system came to a halt. It’s strange that we’re taking these lessons out of it, or that they have to be demonstrated in such a bizarre and dangerous way, but we are in the seat of power and without us, there is no profit — there’s no profit for the hospitals, there’s no profit for the meat-packing plants. There’s no profit. It’s just a strange juxtaposition to know, on the one hand, you’re being led into a situation where you could die to make a boss money. And at the same time, the entire system relies upon you to function. It was a real contrast of potential and risk.

I don’t believe that any less today. In fact, I probably believe it more today — that we have enormous potential. We’re seeing workers that are striking more, we’re seeing the rank-and-file start to grumble about the lack of democracy, vision, or control over their unions.

Tell us who you are: your political organizing, activism, and what you’ve done as a nurse. Also, tell us about your struggle today in terms of fighting for safer working conditions and your job.

My name is Cliff Willmeng. I’m a registered nurse with about 13 years of experience, mainly in the emergency room (ER), some ICU, some primary care stuff, but primarily ER. I come from Chicago. I was born and raised in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. I became a nurse in 2007. I worked on the West Side of Chicago in an ER as a terrified young nurse and then my family and I moved out to Colorado for about 10 years, where I was a nurse as well. In Colorado, I also became a steward in UFCW Local 7, which is the healthcare union covering Kaiser Permanente employees. I was also one of the vice presidents on the executive board of that local, which has about 22,000 members.

My family just came back to the Midwest, to Minneapolis, about a year and a half ago. We knew that the Minnesota Nurses Association was here in the Twin Cities. It’s a large, 22,000-member union entirely made up of RNs. So it’s a very powerful union and that was one of the reasons that we came here. I got a job at United Hospital emergency room in October of 2019. I was a very new member in not only the union, but in the hospital when that pandemic hit us. Minnesota was spared some of the real intense stuff that you saw in New York and Florida, but without a doubt, the conditions here deteriorated in the hospital. The [hospital] administration, who as far as I can tell had 15 years of warnings to prepare for this type of pandemic, failed to act upon them. It created a workplace similar to every other hospital in the country: it was disorganized, it was chaotic. In those days through March and April, we started to find ourselves in conflict with management over lots of safety protocols, hospital policy, even things like patient flow, how to divide up the ER into yellow and red and hot zones. We were wearing N-95s for five days straight. A lot of us in the ER were afraid to bring this virus home on our scrubs — we didn’t want to get our families sick. By March of 2020, I was having to text my brother and say, “If me and Mary are hospitalized, you have to drive up here and take care of our kids. ‘Cause we have nobody up here to take care of them. We’re new to Minnesota.”

To me, it was a life-or-death moment really — producing tons of anxiety, and operating in the backdrop of a hospital administration that was staffed primarily by the corporate executive class. We had to start taking matters into our own hands to protect ourselves in that environment. Sometimes that would mean making sure that everybody was wearing surgical masks in the break room when we’re all standing two feet from each other. Sometimes that meant emergency training, like how do we intubate a patient safely? And for myself and many others, it also took the form of us putting on hospital scrubs that were widely available in the hospital at that time. Our intention was to put those on and be able to leave them at work where they could be commercially laundered so we didn’t have to take a bundle of infected fabric back into our house.

The management of Allina Health — that’s the umbrella organization of United Hospital — was very swift about that. When they saw dozens of nurses putting on those [hospital issued] scrubs, which was prohibited by their uniform policy, they felt that was a power contest with them.

We started being written up for disciplinary reasons for being out of dress code. Can you imagine fixating on dress code in the middle of a 100-year pandemic? Well, that’s the hill that the struggle broke out on. We went to the media, we filed OSHA complaints. We obviously filed grievances. We were trying to organize on the job as union members. I was certainly identified as a leader by management, written up consecutively for uniform code violation and eventually fired for that. And that was on May 8, 2020.

I just want to pause right there about what you’re seeing, how management saw you and your coworkers protecting yourselves as a threat, because it threatened their power over even how you can protect yourselves over your bodies and over your safety. And it makes me really think of how perhaps they’re right, because when workers at the turn of the century really began to fight to unionize, it was often over safety consciousness. I love that term. Workers who have “safety consciousness” really go the furthest and are the most militant because they understand that their fight is one the same as the fight for their lives and their families. And I think that what you all did and what a lot of healthcare workers understand, like why you’re so militantly fighting, is because that’s one of the same.

People who are listening or watching, and being inspired by what you’re doing may ask, how did you get to the point of being able to organize with your coworkers? How were you able to organize within a union that has a history of strengths, like you said — is powerful politically in the region, but also probably has some contradictions, maybe some inertia — how were you able to use that as a vehicle? Also, you can tell us more about your current fight, where your fight is now in terms of trying to get reinstated, and trying to get justice for the way that they came down on you.

This was not, and still isn’t, a fight over a 25-cent raise or an extra five minutes on your break. When we’re fighting and advocating, there’s nothing that is more dear to a nurse than our own lives, the lives of our coworkers, and the lives of our patients. There are probably no three things that are more critical and more valued by any frontline healthcare workers. When we’re talking about safety and we’re worried about spreading what we now know to be a lethal virus, we’re going to fight like our lives depend on it.

I think that within the United Hospital, there are nurses that have been there for a very long time. A lot of veteran nurses went through a very bitter strike in 2016 that did not have a lot of satisfactory outcomes. That’s the perception. They lost their insurance during that. The administration of Allina is extremely politically connected throughout the state of Minnesota. The CEO Penny Wheeler’s partner is a Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. The first press conference with [Minnesota] Governor Walz didn’t feature doctors and nurses on stage. It featured the CEO of my company and other big hospital organizations. So when we’re trying to carve out some safety measures to assert ourselves as decision-makers in health care — the people that should be making the decisions — there’s only a certain amount of decision-making that can go around. The more power frontline workers take, that power has to come from somebody else. And usually that power is appropriated by the executive administrative class that does not see patients, that is collecting handsome paychecks every week, and that is unessential. They’re unessential workers — we don’t need them in the hospital for it to function.

There was a lot of tension, like any workplace. There are folks that are hoping that the administrators know what they’re doing, that they have our best interests in mind. And they don’t want to get on a collision course with very powerful entities. There were workers that were scared. I saw nurses filling out advanced directives at the nursing station, the documents that let you describe what conditions you want to die in when you get intubated and are incapable of making medical decisions for yourself. And that was happening in the ER. It’s about as heavy an experience as I ever want to have. So it was with that kind of backdrop that we were organizing for this stuff. There was advocacy for protective gear. There was advocacy for patient flow. There was a constant struggle to get us into incident command [the structure that provides control and coordination over emergency response] so that we can understand what the dynamics were.

Y’all weren’t part of the incident command? If rank-and-file healthcare workers who were actually caring for patients weren’t in the incident command, then who was?

No. That was an email that I had to write [laughs], because we didn’t know. It’s really executive-level administrators. That’s who was in incident command now. They’ll say, of course, that they’re in contact with the governor and the Minnesota Department of Health. But politicians and governmental regulatory bodies are not the same as frontline healthcare providers. We are continually excluded from that central decision-making body, we are continually excluded from the internal communications where we can get real information about what’s taking place. That to many of us showed that we were on the outside — that we were secondary. We had to go in, we had to do all the work, take care of the patients, make sure everything was safe but we did not have active involvement or authority in those types of decision-making, which have been critical to the response to this.

I was lined up, and they acted according to the standard progressive disciplinary model to get me out of there. I was fired within weeks. This was after an entire month of managers interrogating nurses on the floor while we were in patient care settings about the use of these scrubs. The effect was extremely intimidating to a lot of nurses. My decision was that I’m not going to buckle on patient care. I got fired on May 8.

Minnesota OSHA referred my case to their discrimination unit for the investigation of potential retaliatory action by management. We filed a whistleblower lawsuit in June 2020. Obviously, the union filed a grievance that is now facing arbitration on the 7 and 8 of January. It’s just been so intense. And during the course of that, we ran a bunch of people for office of the union and I won a position on the Board of Directors for the Minnesota Nurses Association. Given that I’ve only been a member for a year and I was effectively removed from campaigning in any hospital, to me, that’s not a small indicator. People associate me with a very powerful fight against the boss and for the protections of our staff and our patients. There’s gotta be some sentiment within this union that wants to see a stronger fight.

Who are the people who voted for you? Where do you think the support is coming from? And what do you think people are hoping for now in terms of change?

Well, I would say single payer health care undershoots it. I mean, we’re looking at 300,000 people who have died during the course of this pandemic. Here in the Twin Cities, with M Health Fairview, another major hospital institution, they literally just closed two hospitals in St. Paul. One of them was entirely a COVID-19 hospital when it closed.

Why were they closed?

For “budgetary reasons.” Corporate healthcare has grossly and systemically failed. This is the worst crisis of U.S. healthcare in a hundred years. The only reason we didn’t have PPE is because our entire manufacturing base was shipped out to China to exploit terrible labor conditions there to make more money.

The hospitals are run on a model that is common everywhere. It’s called the “lean model.” That means you bring the equipment and staff down to the bare minimum. You redline both of those to generate the most amount of money for your corporation. They knew that they were supposed to stock PPE. All the studies were coming out from OSHA, epidemiologists were writing book after book about this. They predicted this pandemic almost to the letter. Yet, in March, we found ourselves begging for N-95 masks. We’re trying to go to Menards and Home Depot to find these things because the CEOs made the decision not to have this stuff on hand. That decision was not an accident. They were not blindsided by this. This is a corporate model.

As the crisis has become more obvious, these folks have lost all authority to make decisions on health care. I mean, they obviously cannot be trusted with a healthcare system. They’re in it for reasons that are not fundamental to patient care and to workplace safety and public health. They’re there to make a check and make a career out of it.

From the beginning, our demands were that we be included in decision-making. That again is the most contentious thing a frontline worker could actually suggest because it puts you at the center of control and these institutions really need to be run by the healthcare workers in collaboration with the public we serve. Those are the only two important elements in the entire equation here.

How do you get elected in a union that you’ve only been a member of for a year? And as somebody that has felt the heavy hand of the hospital administrators? It’s not just a hope that we start to have a new labor movement that we start to redefine and pioneer what that means in the 21st century — it’s a requirement.

We have to also take into consideration the fact that three weeks after I was fired, George Floyd was killed just a couple miles from my house. The third precinct was sacked by protestors. They called the National Guard out. We were living under martial law here, in what will always be known as an urban uprising. People want to discuss racism. They want to talk about oppression in the healthcare system. These are the things that have been put on the shelf far too long. I think that they’re ready to explode.

Let’s hear more about these two dimensions of our struggle that are often divorced, but really can’t be, or shouldn’t be. You’re talking about a new labor movement as well as the struggle against racism and oppression. I want to hear about what that looks like, including the limitations that you saw on the part of labor getting in the fight against police brutality in Minneapolis. We did hear about some really interesting worker-led initiatives, like the Minneapolis transit workers. What was the response like from the nurses’ union?

Those events were just amazing. A lot of the healthcare workers got to be front and center in those events. We were running medical support because the police were extremely violent and heavy-handed and it was difficult for first responders to get to the crowd. There were ad hoc committees that were put together to start deploying healthcare workers around the protests. The bus drivers refused to transport police during that time. The topic of racism hit the labor movement with a lot of force.

I could say that from my own perspective, [the protests] put the union in a very awkward position because as you know, most unions in the United States are almost just proxies for the Democratic Party. So this is an election year and Minneapolis has been controlled by the Democrats for 70 some years. They are the ones that hire and fire the police. They are the ones that have maintained a system of gross economic disparity. So how do you create a campaign against racism when its systemic aspects are being maintained by the political class that you seek alliances with? It’s a contradiction and it becomes very glaring when the rubber starts to hit the road.

As far as the membership goes, the racial diversity committee in the union was setting records for attendance. It was amazing. And I think that the nurses of color felt enormously emboldened and vocal, and encouraged to speak their truth at that time. Obviously they will experience racism from the boss, but they can experience racism laterally in the workforce too. We started to organize against racism, but also started to, it feels like, pioneer the idea that racism is a tool used by the bosses to divide the workers and control us. And sometimes white workers fall for that far more than they should. And it confuses us as working-class people and silos us. It fractures us.

What is the essence of any union? It is mutual solidarity and aid. That was a big part of our campaign running for board, to address that kind of racism. But like, holy cow, what do you do? What do you do with the police? I mean, a lot of those police are drawn from working-class communities. A lot of nurses are married to police officers. The police have their own union — it’s independent here, but it’s within the confines of the AFL-CIO nationally. So we’re really having to reinvent what a class conscious anti-racism looks like in 2020 for frontline workers during the course of a pandemic.

I feel that there is an appetite for a change now and I know that the nurses are feeling scared. My coworkers feel scared. They see me fired, they see stewards triangulated by management. They know that there is a union culture that has been functionally inadequate.

A lot of people looking at the election results — the 70 million votes for Trump — are reading that as evidence of the grip of white supremacy, the grip of anti-Black, racist hatred and xenophobia among white working class people. There are plenty of comrades and white folks who are anti-racist, but there’s also this feeling of demoralization, the sense that the “privilege” that whiteness affords might just be seductive enough, even if it is ultimately in the interest of the ruling class. Do you think that there’s a way for that grip to be loosened among white workers who are not socialists or revolutionaries? Do you see it happening already, or have examples?

I’ll tell you my perspective of it as one nurse here in Minnesota. We’ve got nurses that voted for Trump. I mean, Minnesota almost went for Trump. To me, the kind of white supremacy that he embodies and exudes is acted upon by the Democratic Party just as much — they just don’t promote it as such or so directly.

But look at what has happened with white working class people over the last three decades. Obviously, communities of color have been hit by things like corporate globalization and outsourcing, and the destruction of communities far longer and far more intensely. But in Chicago, for example, where I’m from, we lost like 80,000 steel worker jobs. This was during the course of Bill Clinton’s presidency. It was during the course of NAFTA and the [founding of the] World Trade Organization.

Biden campaigned on a slogan that nothing would fundamentally change. He didn’t spring this on us after the election, that’s literally what he was telling people! I think that that has driven a profound sense of despair and terror and demoralization into the white working class that has been exploited by fascist elements, and they’re successful in doing it. It’s easier sometimes to get those white workers to blame immigrants and people that don’t look like them for their problems instead of the actual source.

You can’t fight that type of reactionary, deep-seated racism and proto-fascism with a milquetoast neoliberalism. You just can’t do it. What I think is more effective is really fighting on class lines. And unfortunately, because the unions have been funneling their membership into the Democratic Party and have been losing over and over and over again, our working conditions, our membership rates, our pay, our everything, that class consciousness has been somewhat destroyed. Not completely, but it’s certainly been weakened. If you want an example, one of the things that I ran for board on was the concept of political independence, which is that working-class people are not represented by these two political parties. They’re not represented by multimillionaires, they’re not represented by Wall Street, and they’re really not represented by Joe Biden and they’re not represented by Trump.

The unions would have the power today. I mean, if we can pour $300 million into a democratic presidential campaign every four years, we could start our own political organization that would look like us, that would be run by us. That would be able to tackle things like racism and poverty in a substantial way, public education, access to healthcare, the environment. These are things that neither one of these political parties have any answers for. I believe it would start to foster an independent sense of self for working-class folks that could cut through that kind of racist crap that is really leading the charge right now.

If we’re going to put a metric to it, I took a motion for political independence into our house of delegates meeting here at MNA where, again, I’ve only been a member for a year. For a moment I thought it was going to pass. It basically said that MNA would divorce itself from the Republicans and Democrats. It would not provide them labor and it would not provide them money, and we would be able to fund our own candidates and start to explore some alternatives to those two parties. It got 27 percent of the vote.

Now that’s the first time around with a brand new concept being advanced by a member of one year standing. So to me, there has to be some mood there. I think that workers want an alternative, but if that alternative is either not built or if it is repressed, you get shit like Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

I think that as white workers, we have to stand up. We have to stand up and demonstrate solidarity. It’s not enough to promote it as an abstraction. We have to envision something new because the community here in Minneapolis made it quite clear that the party’s over for this stuff. What does that mean? I mean, how do you do that? How do you get community control of the police? It starts to pull at the entire fabric of U.S. capitalism. These are big questions and our task here is to pioneer the answers. That’s what we gotta do.

Right. We need to be ready to throw down with our real power — with our power to strike, with our power to shut down — instead of what we end up seeing, which are a lot of empty statements, like pleading letters to the governor. This is election year, so let’s try to get them in so that maybe they’ll do something for us once they’re in. There’s a lot of that, instead of what you started talking about: us recognizing and wielding the power we have as workers. I think it’s important to see a strategy but there’s an internal transformation that has to happen. There’s individual-level change and ideological transformation, and there’s also the context in which that is most likely to happen, which is in mass movements, uprisings, struggles, and in our labor movements like trying to lead and change the nature of our unions as you are in Minnesota.

We’re touching on some big shit here, Tre.

You have a hearing coming up in January. What does it look like in terms of your chances of getting back to work? And I think a lot of people would want to know, do you really want to go back to work for an employer who did everything to get you out?

What’s wrong with me? That’s the way they phrase it in ER-dialect. The arbitration, which is going to argue that I was unjustly fired, is on January 7 and 8. There was some campaigning around my firing and against retaliation of nurses back in May, but that hasn’t been maintained a whole lot. In the last couple of weeks, I have basically been approached by union members from around the country who were like, “Your arbitration is coming up. We have to show some public support.” Obviously for myself and my family, but also, if the bosses can fire union stewards with impunity, you know where that leads: a union-busting measure.

We have to defend the people who are standing up and we have to stand alongside them. I think that we have a strong case for arbitration. This comes to a neutral arbitrator, who is respected within the labor legal community here. I could win that arbitration and, well, I could lose the arbitration too.

I have not been able to find work since being fired in Minneapolis. I applied to at least to 20 different union hospitals around here, and I can’t even get an interview. You can speculate all you want how that works. I’ve never had trouble getting a job as a nurse. If I lose the arbitration, I lose my MNA membership. And if I lose my MNA membership, I can’t get on the board.

If I win my arbitration, then I remain a member, I get put into the board of MNA on January 1, 2021, where we can start to have discussions on how to have that transformation to a fighting rank-and-file union. And then [if] I returned to United Hospital in the ER — if I said that there was no trepidation on my part, I’d be completely lying. I would be very nervous about walking back into that ER, I would be afraid that I’d have a target on my back the whole time. I would be the living embodiment of a defeat of one of the largest healthcare organizations in the Midwest. That’s not a comfortable position for me. But I made up my mind that we might win or we might lose. And there’s going to be some casualties along the way, but if we show hospital executives what we’re afraid of, that’s precisely what they’re going to threaten us with. So I’m not bending. I’m not going to take a knee. I’m not going to cop out. I’m not going to lay my head low when it comes to my coworkers and myself and my family and the patients that we take care of. So yeah, I’ll go back into that ER, and I’ll be the kick-ass ER nurse that I know I am and get right back to work fighting for our patients and coworkers. I mean, that’s what a steward is supposed to do.

Thank you so much for sharing your struggle and your inspiring ideas for how we can move forward. Your fight is not just yours alone. I want to know how people out there watching or listening can support you now.

I’ve never had a defense campaign on my own behalf. I’m usually leading it for somebody else. So this is a little new to me. How can you support? You can get onto our website, it’s frontlinersunited.net and just click Bring Back Cliff and there’s a list of things you can do there, which range from circulating our petition to Allina to reinstate me at United Hospital.You can donate to our little fundraising campaign for legal and for defense. Certainly feel free to post on to Allina’s social media about this. And Penny Wheeler’s [President and CEO of Allina Health] got a Twitter account and all the information is there on the website. And then if you want to, you know, get a little sign that says, Bring Back Cliff or #BringBackCliff, and we’ll circulate that and promote it. Really for my family, it’s incredibly moralizing. It helps my kids. It helps my wife, I sleep a little better at night — not great, but better. We want to design this to make a mark and to show that you can’t just dump on union activists and expect to walk away scot-free so that’s our intention. Let them know how you feel and let them know where you’re at and let them know what is your occupation. You can pass a resolution in your union. There’s a sample of a resolution up on the website there. Every bit of support that you can kick down knowing that you have your own confines and things that you’re fighting for is just super appreciated. And we hope to start to build a network of workers on this basis.

Great. Thank you so much, Cliff. We’ll be keeping in touch with you over the next few weeks. Solidarity, comrade!

Thank you, comrade. Thank you, Left Voice. You guys rock.

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Tre Kwon

Tre is a writer and editor for Left Voice. She is a nurse and member of NYSNA.

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