Now What?

“When will we go back to normal?” This is the question many schoolchildren are asking in New York, now that the rate of COVID infection and death plummets.

As we continue to recover and attempt to orient ourselves to “Phase IV,” the unknowns that we face, as caregivers, students, parents, sons and daughters are daunting and terrifying. Not only are vacations on hold—school plans are altered, home purchases are tenuous, even marriage arrangements are unclear. Many of us wake up wondering if it’s all a bad dream…

But life goes on and human beings have an amazing capacity to adapt. The challenge is: when does adaptation become complacency? When does willingness to work through disaster become a weapon for those who would exploit us?

Nurses and “essential workers” bent over backwards during the height of the pandemic—at no small price to our own health, well-being and sanity. We worked in unfamiliar areas, showed up for unusual shifts, lacked critical tools, were horrifically understaffed, ill-prepared and untrained, and, worst of all, were not given the protective equipment essential for our own survival.

Rather than “adapt” to this new level of exploitation, we fought back! Using the skills our Covid Action Teams and LBU Committees possessed, we organized, petitioned, rallied and publicized the violations and abuses our employers subjected us to.

We exercised our union power, synchronizing our efforts with NYSNA central leadership on all levels: in LBUs, surrounding communities, with elected leaders, the sympathetic media, and working closely with union allies. This carefully coordinated effort and the willingness of members to fight back got us PPE, staff, ventilation, scrubs, food, housing, bonus pay (still elusive for the public sector due to “austerity”), time off, avoided some layoffs and furloughs, recouped lost time and engaged with the Workers Comp Board to recognize COVID-19 as a workplace hazard.

What’s the reward for our sacrifices? Tragically, instead of providing for our needs, employers continue to lean on these so-called “emergency provisions,” floating us, changing hours, engaging in “direct dealing,” and walking all over our contracts. That must stop.

The fight now centers on not allowing them to circumvent our legal agreements. We’ve put forward a universal set of COVID Demands that can be a template for LBUs. Management can’t cherry pick between emergency provisions and business as usual. To date, they’re not forthcoming with data and refuse to partner in most units to prepare for a second wave or even to develop a humane training program for members.

Employers, especially the major wealthy systems, are taking advantage of the current disarray to push through heartless schemes to close essential but unprofitable services, particularly in mental health, but also in Peds and OB, even closing hospitals in our most vulnerable communities (see “Saving Mount Vernon Hospital,” pp. 8-9 ).

This is a betrayal of the public’s trust, as these “Non-Profits” (who pay no taxes, but receive government funds to provide services) double-dip, fatten their bankrolls and earmark resources for executive salaries, exorbitant fringes, overpriced consultants, excessive marketing, and inflated payroll for “business” administrators. They squeeze direct care providers, demanding we do more with less. The ultimate victims are our vulnerable patients, the staff that care for them, and public hospitals that serve as the only place patients can receive such services, along with ERs everywhere, soon to be overwhelmed with patients with nowhere else to go.

Nurses and workers everywhere are tired of being told there’s no money in the budget. We pay taxes—we deserve services, salaries, benefits and supports from our employers and our government. This “austerity” agenda we’re told we must stomach, along with draconian budget cuts are unconscionable and deadly. Community organizations, unions and the general public are uniting around a demand to tax the billionaires and the ultra-wealthy.

Finally, many legislators are listening.

There are multiple bills in both houses of the NY State Legislature to reimpose small taxes on billionaires’ wealth, insignificant to them, but life-saving for our people. Wealth disparities are so huge that returning to even half of the tax standards of 30 years ago would generate enough money to support schools, mass transit and hospitals.

It’s time for the rich to pay their fare share! (See “Our choice is clear,” p. 3.) We need to be vocally, visibly and vigorously promoting these bills. With federal cuts in the HEALS Act, hunger, eviction, bankruptcy and foreclosure will be the rule.

Let’s ensure Governor Cuomo understands: These state tax initiatives are truly a matter of life and death!

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