Over 10,000 unionized private sector nurses in New York City could strike over the next two weeks. Nurses so far have overwhelmingly voted to strike (almost 99% as of December 22) with voting still open for some. NYSNA submitted an official strike notice to eight hospitals, stating:
“Today, Friday, December 30, we delivered a 10-day strike notice to management. Our strike begins January 9 at 6:00 a.m., if management does not choose to use the next 10 days to make serious and reasonable proposals that achieve a settlement.”
Similar strike notices — which are required by law as part of the anti-labor legal framework of the U.S. — are likely to be served at other major NYC private sector hospitals in the coming days. Ominously, on December 31 the Presbyterian-Columbia bargaining unit announced that a tentative agreement (TA) had been reached, affecting approximately 3-4 thousand nurses. Details of that TA are still being released but it seems likely that Presbyterian nurses will not be striking in the short term. Every contract must be ratified by the membership, however, and Presbyterian nurses have the power to vote down the current TA if they deem it subpar.
Public hospital nurses are also represented by NYSNA and work in substandard conditions with lower pay and understaffed facilities. These essential workers are continuously told they cannot strike due to New York State’s draconian Taylor Law which prohibits public sector strikes. However, with the public sector nurses’ contract expiring March 2 of this year, this important sector could help galvanize the labor movement and challenge anti-labor laws which hamstring public sector unions. Whether employed by the public or private sector, nurses must make common cause and link up with broader allies in the labor movement, including other hospital and nursing home workers.
This fight unfolds amidst the broader uptick in union activity in the U.S., which has included union drives at Amazon, Starbucks, many tech companies, and among academic workers. This month, the longest ever academic workers’ strike concluded at the University of California. Adjuncts at NYC’s New School also had a combative strike in 2022. In the United Kingdom, a massive 100,000 nursing strike was called in mid December, with threats of renewed strike action in January if demands are not met. These examples illustrate that nurses are part of a broader impetus of working class activity. Far from being siloed off from other sectors, nurses interact with every strata of society on a daily basis, and are consistently ranked as the “most trusted” professionals. The potential strike in NYC presents an opportunity for the workers movement to begin 2023 with a badly-needed show of strength.
What’s At Stake?
The nursing sector is one of the largest branches of the workforce, employing over three million people in the U.S.. This union-dense field is crucial for public health and nurses were rightly praised as heroes during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, working under the constraints of a for-profit healthcare system means that profits come before people. Health care is a hugely lucrative sector, which in many cases, increased profits as a result of COVID-19. The industry is run by boardroom executives and high-level bureaucrats while the people who actually treat patients and keep the hospitals and clinics running have little to no say over anything.
In the current contract fight between New York’s unionized nurses and the hospital bosses, binding nurse-to-patient ratios remain a major source of contention and are a prominent contract demand. The union’s fight for safe staffing levels is quite literally a life-or-death fight for the entire working class, particularly in the age of Covid when upwards of one million people died in the U.S.. This death toll was particularly high in the U.S. because of chronic underfunding of public health systems, and the basic “for profit” model which prioritizes money of people. One study estimated that 200,000 people could have been saved under a public health system.
Even before the pandemic, nurses — and healthcare workers more broadly — were forced to treat more and more patients in less time. When COVID-19 hit NYC in early 2020, the toll was high for patients and health providers alike. As RN and NYSNA president Nancy Hagans remarked:
“…Nurses have been to hell and back, risking our lives to save our patients throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes without the PPE we needed to keep ourselves safe, and too often without enough staff for safe patient care.”
The harsh reality is that private-hospital bosses have put profit maximization over people’s lives, creating worse hospitals for workers and patients alike. Politicians from both parties, such as New York’s now-disgraced former governor, Andrew Cuomo, have systematically starved public hospitals of badly needed resources for decades. These factors contributed heavily to creating a healthcare system that buckled under the pandemic and caused untold suffering.
The entire working class has a direct stake in the nurses’ fight: a victorious strike could heighten class consciousness, improve patient outcomes, reduce burnout among healthcare providers, win long-overdue pay and scheduling demands, as well as dealing a well-deserved blow to the criminals running the American healthcare industry for profit.
From Stifled Rage to Open Revolt
While nursing pays relatively well, particularly at the better funded hospitals and travel nurse agencies, the simple truth is that most U.S. nurses are unhappy with their jobs and working conditions. According to one survey from 2021, 90% of survey respondents were considering leaving the profession. A different survey from March 2022 found that one third of nurses planned to leave their careers by the end of 2022, citing high-stress and burnout as a top reason.
This stress and burnout has been naturalized within the system of for-profit health care. Continuing care and public sector nurses, in particular, are often forced to navigate chaotic and inhumane workplaces for even lower pay than their counterparts in other sectors. That many nurses lacked basic Personal Protective Equipment during the pandemic was just one more indignity among many.
The seeds of revolt amongst U.S. nurses have already begun to sprout. Many nursing strikes occurred in 2022, including a three-day 15,000-person walk-out by the Minnesota Nurses Association. Nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Massachusetts were out on strike for almost a year. Becker’s Hospital Review identified 18 separate nursing strikes in total for 2022. In 2019, a large nurses strike was only averted in New York City when elements within union leadership accepted a toothless contract that claimed to achieve “safe staffing” but lacked any mechanism for enforcement. The next year, in the midst of the pandemic, around 200 nurses at Montefiore struck for safe staffing ratios for two days. This move by the union bureaucracy and the overall experience of the 2019 battle should serve as a warning as the current contract fight unfolds.
All Out to Support the Nurses’ Struggle!
As the January 9 strike deadline approaches, building the broadest possible solidarity will be key. If the hospital bosses sense weakness, they will be emboldened to fight the union harder. On the other hand, an outpouring of solidarity by workers across industries will weaken the resolve of the bosses and embolden the nurses. Union militants, the organized left, healthcare advocates, and everyone who has a shred of compassion or solidarity: now is the time to get involved!
There are many tasks that must be taken up if this struggle is to be decisively won, including:
- Educating friends, family and coworkers about what’s at stake
- Creating picket support groups, through which broader allies can get involved—Doing outreach to other sectors of hospital workers, many of whom are unionized
- Using social media to build support for the nurses’ struggle
- Inviting nurses to speak at membership meetings of other unions to build solidarity, or
- otherwise organizing forums for militant nurses to explain about their struggle
- Creating leaflets and other material aimed at building support among the general public
The above list is in no way comprehensive, but rather initial ideas for broadening the nurses’ fight and building active solidarity. If you’d like to get involved in the solidarity efforts being organized by Left Voice and Bread and Roses, please reach out to us at [email protected]
Article updated 1.2.23 to correct factual errors.