Nurses on strike

The National Nurses March and the Fight for Better Working Conditions

The National Nurses March, set for May 12, 2022 in Washington, DC, was sparked by a discussion on a proposed cap on nursing wages, and fueled by the worsening conditions that nurses, like countless other workers, face in their workplaces. A rumored proposal to investigate imposing such a cap has led to more than 200,000 nurses expressing interest in attending a national demonstration. Prior to the pandemic, nurses were confronted by many issues in the workplace, including too many patients per nurse per shift, stagnant wages, and a lack of preventative measures for frequent violent physical attacks. All of this has been amplified by the pressures of the pandemic, pushing nurses to the breaking point.

Nurses looking to fight back

The last straw for many nurses came when word began to circulate that a congressional inquiry was being conducted, which could result in a cap on the wages of nurses working for travel and staffing agencies. When nurses in a “travel nursing page” on Facebook began to express anger about the prospect of such a cap, a nurse named Veronica Marshall broadened the discussion to include other concerns about their workplaces, and proposed a march to raise the nurses’ collective voices for change. This proposal led to the creation of a Facebook page that grew organically to 175,000 in just one week! Since then, tens of thousands more have signed up and plans are underway for a march in Washington, DC on May 12.

Prior to the pandemic, nurses were confronted by many issues in the workplace. All of this has been amplified by the pressures of the pandemic, pushing nurses to the breaking point. / Image: Sara Eshleman, Wikimedia Commons

There is no current legislation proposed in Congress calling for a cap on the pay of traveling and staffing agency nurses, but two hundred legislators signed a letter calling for a federal investigation into price gouging by staffing agencies. The authors of the letter insist that their intention is not to limit the salaries of nurses, but to prevent the nursing agencies from charging exorbitantly high rates for nursing services, taking 40–60% for themselves. Those who are opposed to these caps believe any caps on pay rates will inevitably lead to a cap on the wages of nurses, which is a fair assumption under capitalism, where workers are made to bear the brunt of any restrictions or limitations levied on the bosses.

Hesitant march organizers

In the Facebook group, nurses actively discussed potential ways to channel the energy of the march into real change. There were posts that proposed seeking solidarity from nurses’ unions and other labor unions, advocating for a national nurses union, and calling for a strike in response to unmet demands. Despite the nurses expressing a clear willingness to explore avenues outside the realm of electoral politics, the organizers of the march went on to release a statement limiting the scope and tactics of the march.

In the “about me” section of the Facebook page and the official website of the march, a statement can be found outlining the goals and focus of this event, as well as a section on “what we are not.” In this statement the organizers explain that they are not a strike, a riot, a protest, or a platform for vaccine mandates, and that they do not encourage protest movements or riots. Veronica Marshall went so far as to create a Tiktok video asserting that the nurses march is in no way affiliated with or in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The organizers do not even encourage the pursuit of any specific legislation on their official pages. The only clear goal put forward by the organizers is a march to peacefully raise the collective voices of nurses.

In other words, they are basically calling on nurses to march together to express frustration and let off steam, but refuse to point toward any specific solutions. There may be some value in a collective show of numbers, but where does this lead? Why should a nurse take a day off from work and travel to Washington, DC without a specific goal in mind? The fact that so many nurses have expressed interest shows how much anger and frustration there is and the lack of direction by the leaders of the healthcare unions. However, in order to bring about real change, we must have real demands and a strategy to achieve them.

The silence of the healthcare unions

Whether or not the organizers are in support of the idea of a nationwide union for nurses cannot be determined by the organizers’ website, and organizers did not respond to requests to discuss their position on the subject, or even whether or not they are working with existing unions. It is also unclear whether the existing national nurses unions are in support of the march, as neither the American Nurses Association nor National Nurses United responded to requests for information.

One local union did respond to requests for comment. They expressed suspicion about the march, feeling the group doesn’t clearly identify who they are and that too much of the agenda is focused around travel nursing. They noted that the organizers of the march had not made any attempts to connect with unions in NY, CA, and MA, nor National Nurses United. By the same token, it is not clear whether or not the nurses and other healthcare unions have made any attempt to contact the organizers, nor have they tried to organize their own national march with collective demands put forward by organized labor.

The only support for anything related to nursing unions is a post by Laura Gasparis Vonfrolio, a nurse who spoke at the 2014 NNU-backed Nurses March on Washington in favor of legislation to establish safe patient ratios. She posted a link to an article from December 2021 about the NNU’s continued appeal to Congress to pass such legislation. Laura’s post expressly states support for two federal bills. The fact that the organizers allowed this information to be shared and featured on the Facebook page of the march is the only indication that they have any knowledge of the union or support any bills.

2022 Nurses March FB screenshot
It is not clear whether or not the nurses and other healthcare unions have made any attempt to contact the organizers of the march, nor have they tried to organize their own national march putting forward collective demands.

There exists another website, Nurses Against Violence, that presents itself as connected with the National Nurses March. The site refers to the march as the United Nurses March as opposed to the National Nurses March, and describes the event as a call to action in support of three bills: HR 1195 Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, HR3165 Nurse Staffing Standards for Hospital Patient Safety and Quality Care Act of 2021, and HR 666 Anti-Racism in Public Health Act of 2021. It is unclear if this page has any affiliation with the official organizers of the march, and the nurse who created the site is accused of attempting to co-opt the march.

What way forward for nurses and healthcare workers?

The change in conversation from caps on the wages of travel and agency nurses to a discussion over issues that affect nurses across all care settings is an example of the simmering discontent in the American working class. This shows the importance of monitoring developments in such spontaneous workers’ protests, rather than standing on the sidelines. Class anger can take on a life of its own and a movement’s starting point does not determine where it will end.

So the key question is this: How can nurses fight for better wages, benefits, and working conditions and actually win? Let’s start with a correct framing of the problem: capitalism profits from overworking and underpaying the working class, which includes millions of nurses in the US alone. This system is not fundamentally interested in providing safe working conditions for nurses—traveling or otherwise—if that cuts into the money they wish to reap. The corporate healthcare industry, which includes both “for profit” and so-called “not for profit” entities is large, powerful, and politically connected. How can they be defeated?

When facing a powerful class enemy, only mass action and class unity can push them back. All of the nurses and healthcare unions must join together around a program to improve the wages, benefits, and working conditions of all of the healthcare workers. We cannot allow different healthcare workers to be pitted against one another. In unity, there is strength! That’s the way to battle the bosses!

When facing a powerful class enemy, only mass action and class unity can push them back. / Image: National Nurses United

To this end, nurses and other healthcare workers must struggle to change the policies of the union leaders, with their timid lobbying of politicians in parties representing the super rich. Workers need class independence and a party of our own!

Ultimately, we must fight for the nationalization of the entire healthcare industry, including big pharma and the medical machine industry, to be operated in the public interest under democratic workers’ control, thus allowing society to provide universal healthcare free at the point of service. Then there will be plenty of resources available to improve working conditions, ensure safe staffing ratios, and much more.

I will be at the march to raise this perspective. If you are interested in fighting to turn our unions into organizations that will fight and win against corporate healthcare, we know this will not be quick and easy. But we can start today, by gathering those who are open to revolutionary socialist ideas. Our ideas are growing and they will continue to grow, eventually, exponentially. The future of healthcare under capitalism is one of crisis and austerity. The working class will not just stand by and accept this, it will fight back, but we must provide a way forward so the struggle will be successful.

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