NEW YORK NURSE: February 2008
by Mark Genovese
“Without NYSNA’s help, we would not have been able to manage,” said Crystal Eldridge, one of the 800 Kentucky and West Virginia nurses who recently ended their strike against Appalachian Regional Healthcare (ARH).
Eldridge and other strike participants came to the Jan. 14 meeting of the Delegate Assembly to share some of their experiences. For 83 days, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, the nurses endured stifling heat, bitter cold, rain, hail, snow, and intimidation.
Strikebreaking efforts began even before the nurses walked off the job. Eldridge said Harlan ARH Hospital in Kentucky, on the advice of a hired union-busting firm, moved the most experienced nurses into management positions two months prior to the strike. This took them out of the bargaining unit and prepared them to supervise replacement workers.
Once the strike started, management sent threatening letters to the nurses. “They said that if we didn’t have enough sense to come back to work, we might not have a job to come back to,” Eldridge said. Letters arrived nearly every day, some urging the nurses to come back to work and abandon their union.
“As someone who had never seen a strike firsthand, I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Eldridge continued. “I saw that our picket line became a way to stand up for patients’ rights and a way to be treated with dignity and respect. But when you’re separated by hundreds of miles from your fellow picketers and getting no information, it starts to get very cold.”
NYSNA members and staff visited the picket lines in early November and immediately promised to help with organization and communication. Information began to flow, rallies and candlelight vigils were organized, and money made its way to the line. NYSNA also helped the nurses produce a daily strike bulletin. “It was such a morale booster to hear from the other lines,” Eldridge said. “We waited every day for it.”
Sonya England started work at Middlesboro ARH Hospital in West Virginia right out of nursing school. “There was a waiting list to work at ARH because it offered the best wages, benefits, and training.” But over the years, the quality of the workplace environment declined. “We were forced out on the picket line by the hospital’s refusal to fairly negotiate on patient safety, safe staffing, scheduling, mandatory overtime, seniority rights, and the preservation of our basic dignity,” England said.
Delegates also heard from Terri Hogle, a former organizer for the United American Nurses (UAN). She described efforts by the nurses and the West Virginia AFL-CIO to get the UAN involved, noting that UAN officials referred the matter to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
“I could not stand by and let people be taken advantage of,” she said. Hogle encouraged the nurses to reach out to NYSNA for help. “The day NYSNA walked through that door was the day the nurses truly had hope.”
“I’ve never before witnessed the courage and conviction we saw in these nurses in Kentucky and West Virginia,” said Lorraine Seidel, director of the NYSNA Economic & General Welfare (EGW) Program. “We celebrate their courage and honor their struggle.”
“They didn’t realize how big their fight was,” added Susanne Calvello, an associate EGW director. “This strike was watched nationwide. The nurses told me they wore red and white to the picket line every day. From their ivory towers, management couldn’t see faces. They could only see a sea of red and white and assumed that NYSNA was on the line night and day. To quote one striker: ‘Management was afraid of NYSNA.’”
“NYSNA stepped in and brought experience, information, compassion, and money,” said Eldridge. “We grew to understand that we may have been a small group, but we were part of a larger family of nursing.”