Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On Crossing the Picket Line

An open letter to my fellow nurses, on strike this week:

My Fellow Nurses, 

     This week, on Wednesday, you walk out of your facility for 5 days. The same day, I and 350+ nurses walk in to take your place. Historically, those who cross the picket lines of a strike are called "scabs" by the strikers and others.   I also know that historically that term has also been a derogatory term, but I will set that aside and use that term for simplicity's sake. For decades, when employees feel oppressed or mistreated by their employers, and negotiations fail to result in adequate changes, the employees unionize, and go on strike. In mills, factories, mining sites, and grocery stores, unions have protected the rights of workers, allowing them to stand up for safer workplaces, better pay, and other reasonable demands. Unions and strikes have lead to labor legislation, changes in safety practices, and better pay and benefits. By flexing their collective power, employees get their employers to listen. A strike, as a heavy duty weapon, forces employers to listen by hitting them where it hurts - their bottom line. Companies can't make money if they can't make or move products, because their workers walk out and the production line stops. 

     So then, what if the industry is not a factory or a coal mine, but a hospital? What if the "product" is not an item, but a human being, in the form of a patient? 

     In other industries, "scabs" allow the employer to hold out longer and not give in to their employees' demands, because the industry can continue. But what if the industry will keep going with or without the workers, because the production line has no stop button? What if patients still come into the ER, still stay in the ICU and can't transfer, or have an urgent need for surgery? Nursing and health care are not like other industries. While a factory may be able to shut down for awhile with the only impact on the products and the market, a hospital can't shut down, and without nurses, patients' lives are at risk. 

     There are some nurses who still feel that other nurses betray them by coming to work in their place. But without those travel nurses in their place, eventually nurses would not be allowed to strike, because laws would be passed to protect the public from the risks. 

     Some nurses understand that nurses have to take their place when they strike, but they still believe the "scabs" help the employer not feel the brunt of the strike. Does it? Unionized hospitals carry strike insurance, which means that a great deal of the expenses they pay to have travel nurses come cover the strikers are covered. However, strikes are still very expensive for the hospital, and the costs are not always covered entirely by the strike insurance. In addition to the hourly wages of the incoming nurses (usually significantly higher than the typical wage), they also pay for their document processing, orientation, lodging, transportation, security, and travel. Traveling last minute gets expensive, so instead of paying $200-400 like you would ahead of time, they are paying $1200 for the same trip. The agency that finds and processes the nurses gets paid to do so, as well as to run the strike coverage from on site. The hospital also continues to pay benefits for all their regular employees. Additionally, patients are often diverted from the hospital when possible in order to offload it when it has minimal staff. Patients with elective procedures may reschedule or switch hospitals if they are able. The hospital loses out on the profits from those patients, even though there are nurses covering the strike.  One of the most impactful aspects of a strike, though the least quantifiable, is the impact on a hospital's public image. For healthcare facilities, the trust of the community is vital. When nurses go on strike, it hurts the facility's relationship with its community. It also impacts stakeholders and future employees, who may find out about the strike and decide not to invest there or work there. 

     "Scabs" are a necessary part of protecting nurses' right to strike, and protecting the patients of that community during a strike. 

     To my fellow nurses, who walk out of their facility this week, to ask primarily for better staffing policies so that they aren't working so much overtime that they all burn out, I support you. I hope your employer gives you what you feel you need to function, and that the strike helps resolve the situation. I hope that striking doesn't hurt any of you financially, since hopefully the union dues will help offset lost wages. Most of all, I hope you know that I will care for your patients to the best of my ability, so that they feel safe and you don't have to worry about them. I hope the minor chaos in the facility caused by bringing in so many new nurses only brings awareness to the patients and their families, so that the community will be on your side. Know that I will be speaking of you in supportive ways when I speak to members of your community. By being here, I hope I hurt your employer enough financially that it just makes sense to them to give you what you're asking for. I am glad that I can enable you to fight for your rights and stand up for yourselves, because I understand that a strike is never undertaken lightly.