by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn/Love and Rage
Nearly 200 nurses and their supporters walked on a picket line in front of St.Elizabeth’s Hospital on Friday, March 18. The nurses, who are members of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), held a two hour informational picket to educate the public about the issues they face, mainly safe staffing concerns, and to put pressure on their employer. Two other NYSNA pickets were held on Friday, one in Watertown which also drew over 200 and one in Oneida.
I decided to walk the picket line in solidarity with the nurses. As I walked down the sidewalk on Genesee Street towards the hospital, I noticed that just about everyone there was wearing red, the color of the NYSNA union. A union organizer led the picketers in chants and a band of musicians created a celebratory atmosphere for the picket. I talked to several nurses and union members about why they were there.
In between talking to nurses on the picket line, I joined in the call and response chants that echoed through the megaphone:
“What do you want?”
“What is this about?”
Karen Lallier, a native of New York Mills, and RN who has worked at St. E’s, as St. Elizabeth’s Hospital is popularly referred to, for 28 years, spoke to me at length. She told me that the nurses there have been working without a settled contract since June. Lallier explained that the hospital does not staff enough nurses, putting both nurses and patients in precarious, potentially dangerous situations. She said that, ideally, ER nurses like her should be responsible for four patients but are often responsible for six or more patients. “My job is very stressful. We never know who is going to come through the door.”
When asked about the contract for the union, Lallier stated, “I hope we come to a good agreement.” In frustration, she added, “We had an informational picket six years ago over the same thing.” Apparently, safe staffing has been an ongoing problem at St. E’s and management has done little, if anything, to improve the workplace conditions as well as the safety for and care of the patients.
NYSNA is currently running a campaign to highlight safe staffing. The union asserts that unsafe staffing is a major problem by “increasing rates of costly hospital-acquired infections, increasing patient falls, increasing 30-day readmissions, increasing medical malpractice lawsuits, increasing nurse burnout, and increasing staff turnover.” The Journal of the American Medical Association highlights this issue with some startling data, reporting that “Hospitals that routinely staff with a 1:8 nurse-to-patient ratio experience five additional deaths per 1,000 patients than those staffing with a 1:4 nurse-to-patient ratio.” People’s lives are quite literally being put on the line with unsafe staffing.
Again, a chant boomed through the megaphone and reverberated through the picket line:
“What will you do?”
“For all our patients!”
Family members, friends, children, and even workers from other unions and workplaces came out to show support for the nurses. Several teachers from New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) also walked the picket line. Two local politicians showed up to express their support for the nurses. State Assemblyman and Democrat Anthony Brindisi, who has been out to countless union pickets over the years, shouted, “You can throw one hell of a picket!” He pledged his support to the union workers and said, “I will stand with you and do whatever I can to support the nurses.” City Councilman Joseph Marino was also present and echoed Brindisi’s remarks. “Our council and city support you and all that you do.” He later posted some pictures form the rally online and proclaimed that he was “Proud to stand with NYSNA nurses today to fight for safer increased staffing for patient care in Utica. It’s a selfless act when a group comes together, not for increased pay or benefits for themselves, but for the proper care of others.”
The reasons why I showed up are quite simple. I have a close connection with the hospital, but even closer with the nurses who work there. My twin sister and I were born at St. Elizabeth’s and an Irish nurse in the delivery room helped give me my name. I’ve gone to the hospital on numerous occasions for treatment and prolonged stays. Many of my family members, friends and loved ones have also received care at St. E’s over the years. And it has always been the nurses in particular who stand out in my memory as being exceptional workers, providing excellent care, and going above and beyond their expectations.
My mom and my oldest sister are also nurses so I understand the kind of stress and the exploitation that nurses go through – overworked, underpaid and unappreciated. My mom went to nursing school at St. E’s and worked there off and on over the years. When I was younger, dinner was always accompanied by stories about work from my parents. She was a completely selfless nurse and put her job on the line on a number of occasions purely for the safety and concern she had for her patients. But my mom did not just complain about her workplace conditions. She stood up and fought back.
She worked under protest at various hospitals, encouraged her coworkers to form unions at several workplaces, organized collective actions at work, and spoke up during captive-audience meetings and against employers determined to break the will and voice of nurses. She even attempted to organize a union of nurses who worked as case managers at St. E’s. The attempt was crushed and she left to work elsewhere, but the seeds she planted grew into an actual union for case managers. My mom did not know when I was younger, but these stories and her conviction to stand up with and for her coworkers had a major impact on me. It was preciously because of what my mom did that I became a union activist. I shared the story with the nurses at the picket. Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that I was radicalized by a pro-union nurse.
I also told them that I was there as a member of both the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and NYSUT. I explained that NYSUT has been organizing adjunct professors and part time workers at Mohawk Valley Community College for the last few years. Adjunct professors are not paid for any work spent outside of the classroom – office hours, class prep, grading papers, professional development. I try not to think about it much, but by the end of each week I make about $5.00 an hour. I have no security, no benefits and no health insurance. I understand first hand, and in a very painful way, the crunch that nurses are in. I also understand that an injury to one worker is an injury to all workers and that the only way we will improve our conditions is to organize collectively and form unions.
And this is why all workers, whether they are in unions or not, should support the nurses at St. E’s. It is only through our collective actions, as a class, of all workers, and through our mutual aid and solidarity with each other that we will be able to make much needed reforms and improvements for workers, but also build power. Our picket lines will only become larger, our working conditions will only improve and a better world can be built when teachers come out to support nurses, nurses go to support teachers, when workers who are US citizens support migrant and undocumented workers, when everyone joins the movement to raise the wage to $15 an hour and when we all make common cause with workers struggling in other countries. This is the essence of solidarity. It is expressed in the age-old IWW adage “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
It appeared that many of the nurses also felt this. Karen Lallier stated that like nurses, many other workers “are doing the job of two people.” As the picket came to a close, musician Larry Siegel who traveled up from Rockland County to support the Friday actions led the nurses in singing the old IWW tune “Solidarity Forever.” When we all take those two words to heart, and act on it, we can improve the conditions of nurses, support the care of patients, and create a better society for all workers.
If people want to get involved with the campaign for fair staffing at hospitals, and want to support the nurses and NYSNA, please visit the NYSNA website.
Of course, you can also help by organizing your own union at work.