In a variety of locations throughout the state, local bargaining units are negotiating contracts with employers who show little empathy for us, for patients or for conditions in our communities.
What do we want? It’s simple.
- To be treated with respect as human beings, workers and professionals.
- To receive the salaries and benefits that allow us to support our families and that recognize the all-important work we do 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
- To be confident that when we can no longer work these grueling jobs, we can retire with dignity—and that we can survive on a reasonable income and receive the healthcare that we’ve been delivering all these years to others.
- To be able to practice our art and science—and do what we do best: care for patients with the resources we need, not serve as surrogate billers in electronic devices.
- To ensure that our rights as union members are honored and that we’re not the “fall guys” for a failing system.
- To be safe and protected in the “house of healing” and ensure it does not become the “house of horrors.”
Soldiers—usually infantry—in a war are called “cannon fodder” when they are considered expendable and are sent to fight in the most dangerous areas, where they are likely to be killed, maimed or wounded.
Nurses and frontline caregivers are the cannon fodder of today’s healthcare system.
Whether it’s a deranged patient, colleague or visitor, we are targets because we are there, because we are all that they see, because we are the people who cannot do enough without the staff, support, resources and capabilities to make up the difference for a system that doesn’t do enough.
We scramble to demand that our employers make our workplaces safe, protect us, make it clear that violent language, behavior and threats won’t be tolerated, and that attacks against caregivers will be prosecuted—and very few employers do much to accommodate such needs—but we are treating the symptoms, not the causes.
Understaffing, underinsurance, underfunding
We live in a violent and depressed society. As nurses, we know that depression is anger turned inward and abusive behavior is anger turned outward. The frustrations that patients confront have few outlets. We are the reluctant emissaries of our employers—with no power over the conditions our patients face.
But they don’t know that. Unfortunately, a number of our patients see us as the obstacles to care, not as the advocates for their needs. Nurse advocates, in fact, actively fight the system by which we are all victimized. But unfortunately, nurses who protest conditions like understaffing and lack of resources, nurses who make demands to improve care or who confront management about outrageous situations are targeted as “troublemakers” and “malcontents” instead of acknowledged as the heroes they truly are.
Then there is the unconscionable lack of funding for mental health services that push so many of our patients into psychotic states, or results in a failure to provide the support care that patients desperately require. Even patients with insurance don’t receive the long-term comprehensive care they require to live fulfilling lives in society.
This slogan was the mantra of activists during the height of the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s. It was this activism that pushed the government to fund research and care for victims of the horrifying disease. Now, as a result, treatments are available that allow patients to live and to thrive.
There is funding for care and other supports, while never totally adequate, that have changed the paradigm completely and altered the prognosis 180 degrees.
Conditions in our hospitals—for patients and for caregivers—deserve the same level of activism. Understaffing shortchanges patients and nurses alike. Only mandatory ratios and limits to visits and productivity can alleviate this problem.
Health insurance companies serve only to deny care, push sick patients out, generate obscene profits and aggravate all of us with tedious electronic medical record systems to facilitate it all. Only a single-payer funding mechanism for healthcare—Medicare for All—can begin to address these problems.
The torments to which our members are subjected, as described above, must be stopped so that nursing becomes a beloved profession that can attract and retain committed caregivers with security both on the job and in the home.
All of these issues can be tackled, albeit to varying degrees, through winning great contracts. But history has proven that to win in negotiations, our members have to be aware, engaged, passionate and “awake.”
Organizing is the caffeine that stimulates the body of NYSNA members to rise up, reach out and speak truth to power. “They” have the money, but we have not only the moral high ground, but the people. People Power.