Who writes our history?

If someone broke into our homes and took our valuables, we would be outraged. Why are we not as upset about the theft of our history? What is more valuable than knowledge – and truth to power?

There is a rich and vibrant history in our country – a history made by workers, immigrants, women, people of color, and the poor and disenfranchised. But the history most of us learn is about presidents and senators, judges and millionaires. History is written by the victors of war.

Labor wars

FDR is celebrated as the president who legalized unions, created social security, and provided a social safety net for Americans. The truth is that these laws were passed due to intense pressure generated by workers and the unemployed: our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents; victims of the Dust Bowl and veterans of the auto sit-down strikes; garment workers in NYC and miners in Montana. Social movements are what move lawmakers and judges.

Prior to World War II, most hospitals were staffed by student nurses who provided free labor. Graduate nurses worked mostly as visiting nurses, private duty nurses, educators, and supervisors.

With the tremendous growth of union health plans throughout the 50’s and 60’s – and the private insurance industry – academic medical centers proliferated and charity hospitals were transformed into renowned teaching institutions.

The struggles of the 1930’s, and the powerful movements of the 1960’s, were built on the shoulders of previous generations of activists in the 19th and 20th centuries. On May 1, 1886 the Haymarket Massacre of workers in Chicago led to the declaration of May Day, observed around the world, commemorating workers’ battles for justice.

Labor & community struggles today

With the series of recessions beginning in the 1970’s and crystallizing in the bank debacle of 2008, attacks against unions, particularly in the public sector, have escalated. Gains made over 150 years – defined-benefit pensions, no-cost health plans, unemployment insurance, and a variety of safety net programs – have been eviscerated. The disparity between the wealthiest and poorest Americans has risen to astronomical proportions. This reflects the world’s wealth inequality where an astounding 85 individuals possess wealth equivalent to that owned by half of the entire world’s population: 3.5 billion people.*

The labor movement is waking up. We’ve examined the root causes of the so-called economic crisis, and guess what? It’s not our fault! The fault lies with the unbridled greed and irresponsible practices of the super-rich. As labor stands up to these predators, the spirit of May Day is being revitalized.

The effect on NYSNA members

Nurses should be proud of the gains we’ve made in practice, patient advocacy, and quality of life issues for our families. Instead, we’re told we should be “grateful” that we have jobs, feel guilty about being better off than those without benefits, that we’re “greedy” if we want to improve our own lives or increase staffing.

Contract negotiations

That is the picture management has painted as we engage in the most difficult bargaining ever – whether we’re private sector with the right to strike or public sector where members have gone years without a contract due to the Taylor Law that makes striking illegal.

Knowing our history and seeing ourselves as part of a broader movement for workplace and social justice is the first step in protecting what we have, winning what we need, and crafting the changes in healthcare delivery that our patients so desperately require.

*Working for the Few: Political capture and economic inequality,” 178 OXFAM Briefing Paper, 20 January 2014, oxfam.org

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