Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

NYC Nurses in Struggle Against Hospital Managers – and Against Union Bureaucrats

On Wednesday, the panel, “Reflections & Lessons from the Nurses’ Struggle” took place in Manhattan. Six nurses—a seventh appearing by videochat—recounted their experiences in fighting for good contracts and union democracy. A group of union bureaucrats made a scene.

Ioan Georg

June 1, 2019
Facebook Twitter Share
Photo: Left Voice.

“Shame, Shame, Shame” It was to this chanting that a handful of union bureaucrats from the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) stormed out of the People’s Forum on Wednesday night in Manhattan. They had attended the panel “Reflections & Lessons from the Nurses’ Struggle” and apparently did not like what they heard. Of course, they did not leave quietly. Instead, they tried to instigate a fight by calling the panelists—a group of seven rank-and-file nurses representing hospitals from Plattsburgh to Manhattan and from the public and private sectors—liars. Why? Because they were discussing their experiences and struggles as militant nurses.

The panel had been organized by Left Voice alongside the NYC DSA Labor Branch, the NYC DSA Socialist Feminist working group, and Red Bloom. Six nurses spoke on the panel, with a seventh appearing by videochat.

“Ran through many obstacles … and not all from the employers”

The first nurse on the panel was Bobbi-Jo Otis, a 16-year veteran of Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, NY, and co-chair of the Nurses and Professionals for a Democratic Union. In seven minutes she outlined how she and her coworkers had fought since 2012 and won some of the best patient-to-nurse ratios in the region. However, anything won can be lost again, and during the last contract negotiations the hospital went on the offensive. The bosses demanded concessions in staffing ratios and workers’ healthcare benefits. The rank-and-file nurses were willing and ready to fight like hell to keep what they had won.

At this point, the union bureaucracy began to sabotage the struggle. The well-respected local union representative was forced out, funding for needed campaign material was frozen, Unfair Labor Practice grievances and arbitrations were discarded with no explanation, and the union misleadership settled on the slogan that the concessionary deal in front of the nurses was “the best you’re going to get.” After an exhausting ten-month fight, the nurses’ Executive Committee, worn down and demoralized, accepted the company’s contract. And though promises were made that a contractual grid system and established advisory committees would protect staffing ratios, that turned out to be a thing of fairy tales.

In conclusion, Bobbi-Jo reiterated the importance of concrete staffing language in contracts.  Her story illustrated the danger of betrayals by an entrenched union bureaucracy and the need for greater democracy in the union.

“Maybe our union is not what we think it is”

Diana Torres, a nurse from Mount Sinai West and elected member of the hospital’s Executive Committee, was next to speak. She went through the recent contract negotiations at the Big Four hospitals that ended some weeks ago without a strike and with a compromised contract. She explained how the union staff handpicked which members of the negotiating teams would continue bargaining in other rooms while others were left in the lurch.

Beyond this filtering of information, the staffers also removed individuals from the various nurses’ Facebook groups and generally went on a campaign of censorship against the most militant nurses. Torres ended her contribution declaring that the nurses are “going to have to do it on our own” to win the working conditions they deserve.

“Obstruction from our own values”

A public sector nurse from Jacobi Medical Center, Kelley Cabrera, spoke on the relationship between the public and private sectors within NYSNA, which sometimes doesn’t seem like the same union at all. Their contract in the public sector expires June 5th, and that fight has received few resources and even less media attention. When asked about the discrepancy between the two sectors, the local union leadership falls back on the idea that private sector nurses are greedy and public sector nurses are saints for not having so much.

Kelley then went on to explain the working conditions she deals with on a regular basis and how she and her coworkers are stuck in a bind: they want to go public with the horrid conditions in the hospitals but also do not want to weaken one of the few safety nets for poor people in the city. The solution to this is—of course—universal healthcare and far greater funding into the system.

Lillian V. Udell, a nurse from Lincoln Hospital, explained that Universal healthcare is a solution that is being hindered in part by the union leadership’s love for Governor Cuomo. They paid him $64,000 in endorsements, even though he opposes single-payer healthcare and other badly needed reforms. And so, Lillian asked, where are the dues going? To this author, $64,000 would seem to be a useful contribution to the contract struggle.

“How did we end up with a contract so far from our goals”

Tre Kwon, an ICU nurse at Mount Sinai, closed the panel with her views of how the union bureaucracy so “utterly failed the test.” In her estimation, there are around 100 staffers for the union,and this structure exists in parallel to the elected committees. She also said that there is a big gap between union officials and members.

The fight for union democracy is essential to confront the bosses with greater vigor. This also means that workers must fight for class independence and rely on their own organizations and strategies, and never on the Democratic and Republican parties. The most militant nurses should organize to put forward a political vision, and that vision is a socialist society in which the economy is reorganized to meet human needs, including the need for good jobs and decent health care.

Facebook Twitter Share

Ioan Georg

Ioan is a factory worker at an optical lens plant in Queens, NY and a shop steward in IUE-CWA Local 463.

Labor Movement

NYPD officers load Pro-Palestine protesters at Columbia onto police buses

Student Workers of Columbia Union Call for Solidarity Against Repression and in Defense of the Right to Protest

In response to the suspensions and arrests of students at Columbia, the Student Workers of Columbia is circulating a call for solidarity against the repression. We re-publish their statement here and urge organizations, unions, and intellectuals to sign.

A group of protesters carry a banner that says "Labor Members for Palestine, Ceasefire Now!" on a Palestinian flag background

Labor Notes Must Call on Unions to Mobilize for Palestine on May Day

As the genocide in Gaza rages on, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions has called on workers around the world to mobilize against the genocide on May 1. Labor Notes, one of the leading organizers of the U.S. labor movement, must heed this call and use their influence in the labor movement to call on unions to join the mobilization

Julia Wallace

April 18, 2024

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson Has No Place at Labor Notes

The Labor Notes Conference will have record attendance this year, but it’s showing its limits by opening with a speech from Chicago’s pro-cop Democratic mayor, Brandon Johnson. Instead of facilitating the Democratic Party’s co-optation of our movement, Labor Notes should be a space for workers and socialists to gather and fight for a class-independent alternative.

Emma Lee

April 16, 2024
Cargo ship crashing into a bridge in Baltimore on March 26, 2024.

Baltimore Bridge Collapse Reveals Unsafe Working Conditions for Immigrant Workers

Six Latine immigrant workers died in the March 26 bridge collapse in Baltimore. The accident exposed how capitalism perpetuates dangerous working conditions for many immigrants, and funds genocide over crumbling public infrastructure.

Julia Wallace

April 4, 2024


Left Voice Magazine for April 2024 — Labor Notes Edition!

In this issue, we delve into the state and future of the labor movement today. We take a look at the prospects for Palestinian liberation through the lens of Leon Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, and discuss the way that Amazon has created new conditions of exploitation and how workers across the world are fighting back.

Left Voice

April 20, 2024
Image: Joshua Briz/AP

All Eyes on Columbia: We Must Build a National Campaign to Defend the Right to Protest for Palestine

After suspending and evicting students and ordering the repression of a student occupation, Columbia University has become the ground zero for attacks against the pro-Palestine movement. What happens at Columbia in the coming days has implications for our basic democratic rights, such as the right to protest.

Maryam Alaniz

April 19, 2024

The New Labor Movement and the Need for Anti-Imperialist and Class Independent Politics

The rise of labor in the US has put the working class at the center of national politics. It deserves class-independent politics free of the capitalist constraints of the Democratic Party.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

April 19, 2024

Palestinian Liberation and Permanent Revolution

The fight against Zionist oppression is at the center of international and domestic politics. The path forward is to fight for a free, socialist, workers’ Palestine, from the river to the sea, where Arabs and Jews can live in peace.

Jimena Vergara

April 19, 2024