By ERWIN FREED
Over 7000 nurses from two hospitals in New York City are currently on strike. Citing unsafe staffing levels and poor wages, New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) members began picketing at 6 a.m. on Monday morning, Jan. 9.
Workers’ Voice members walked the picket line at Mt. Sinai hospital to hear from workers about conditions in the city’s hospitals and to offer solidarity for a successful strike. Mt. Sinai nurses have been joined by staff in the Montefiore hospital system. An additional 9000 nurses ratified contracts in the days leading up to the strike, after a strike authorization was approved by over 99% of members who voted to give 10 days’ notice on Dec. 30, 2022.
Echoing the strike-breaking ethos of the party’s national leadership, New York State’s Democratic governor, Katherine Hochul, tried to force through a “binding arbitration” on Sunday that would have stopped the then-pending strike. This was rejected by NYSNA union members.
Under-staffing causes death
Nurses have been on the “frontlines” of the fight against both COVID-19 and the permanent austerity regime that is capitalist health care. While new pandemics are causing health crises, for-profit and “nonprofit” hospitals have been cutting services, staff pay, and even closing down “unprofitable” hospital systems. According to studies by the Journal for the American Medical Association, “Hospitals that routinely staff with 1:8 nurse-to-patient ratios experience five additional deaths per 1,000 patients than those staffing with 1:4 ratios.” NYSNA nurses report staffing ratios as high as 20:1.
According to the terms of the 2019 contract, nurses received between 2% and 3.5% annual raises between 2019-2022. With historic rates of inflation this year, that means that wages have dropped precipitously in real terms. Also, the “minimum” (i.e. starting) salaries for virtually all positions have only increased by fractions of a percent. This situation has made it very difficult to attract more registered nurses, as well as pushing longer-time workers out of these hospitals and health care in general. Some surveys are finding as many as two-thirds of hospital workers are strongly considering leaving the profession within two years.
Meanwhile, hospitals’ revenues have gone up and upper management is raking in the dough. In the midst of the COVID pandemic, hospital executives started increasing prices and paying themselves huge bonuses. According to an investigation by the Journal News/lohud, top New York City hospital officials received over $73 million in bonuses in 2020 alone, with over $20 million going to just 40 people.
Feminized work, poverty wages
Nursing, along with many other forms of care work, remains a profession with a strongly disproportionate share of women and queer workers. According to NYSNA, in New York 94% of nurses are women. The conditions in professions like nursing are direct reflections of women and gender oppression generally.
Nurses face incredible stress, being expected throughout a single shift to perform highly technical medical procedures while simultaneously helping complete strangers through intense and frightening emotional experiences. Often, hospital workers face severe abuse by patients, their families, and management. A 2020 article from NBC New York states that even compared to mining and construction workers, when it comes to workplace safety violations “according to Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS]… health care providers in hospitals are significantly more at risk.”
The BLS report details how “intentional injury rate by another person for employees working at private hospitals in 2017 was five times the national rate of all other private industries. The rate was seven times the national rate in New Jersey, and eight times in New York. The national rate was roughly two injuries per 10,000 full-time workers for all private industries.” According to anecdotal reports told to this author on the picket line and by friends in health care in the New England and Tri-State area, violence and instability in nursing has increased significantly during the COVID pandemic.
The types of workplace dangers experienced by nurses is important to understand the gender dynamics of the job. They include regular physical assault, sexual harassment, and intense racism, again from both patients and management. All of these are exacerbated by perpetual funding cuts, which leave nurses and other care providers without safety measures such as reporting systems and security personnel.
There is also the factor of exhaustion from long and draining shifts—on top of forced overtime—which are required to take care of more patients than is either legally or physically safe. This was a common story that workers told us at the Mt. Sinai picket line. At the same time, because so many health-care workers are mothers in “traditional” family structures, they are also responsible for additional work in their homes.
Health-care strikes growing
The years since the 2019 NYSNA contract fight have seen a massive increase in health-care worker organizing and fightbacks. Health-care workers all over the world have faced some of the worst conditions through the pandemic, with very little in the way of compensation. They have also faced major attacks on their working conditions, including attempts by the bosses at automation and introducing two-tier.
At the same time, some of the most important labor campaigns over this same period have been in hospitals and medical systems. These include the massive one-day strike at Kaiser Permanente in California, the historic St. Vincent’s Hospital strike in Worcester, Mass., the Sunrise group home strikes in Connecticut, and a successful unionization campaign at Mission Hospital in Asheville, N.C. The latter gave rise to the first nurses’ union in the state and ultimately won meaningful pay raises in an industry and region where local capitalists pride themselves on their particular strength in union-busting.
Without extending and deepening these fighting organizations, conditions in hospitals and other health-care workplaces will continue to deteriorate for both workers and patients. More examples of nurses, technicians, and all parts of medical and facilities staff are necessary to show the power and potential that the working class has in making basic health care a safe, enjoyable, and quality experience in the United States. Ultimately, as long as capitalists control these industries, costs will go up while “savings,” made through understaffing, lines the pockets of the big bosses.
Picketing will continue from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day until agreements are reached at: Montefiore Moses, 11 E. 210th St., Bronx; Montefiore Weiler, 1825 Eastchester Rd., Bronx; Montefiore Hutch, 1250 Waters Pl., Bronx; Mount Sinai Hospital, 1 Gustave Levy Pl., Madison & 99th St., Manhattan.