There’s been a lot of nurses strikes lately and for good reason–they are treated horribly, a sign of our terrible medical system for profit. Like a lot unions these days, the New Your nurses strike is not primarily about wages. It is about conditions and how hospitals interact with the public. This is called bargaining for the common good and we’ve seen it work quite effectively in the teachers strikes. It worked here too.
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, America’s nurses were rightly praised for the central role they played. But nurses are burned out. Many are simply leaving the profession. Thousands across the country are doing what the nurses at Montefiore and Mount Sinai in New York City did last week: go on strike.
Their No. 1 demand is not more pay or better benefits, the traditional stuff of labor negotiations. Instead, they want hospitals and nursing homes to hire more nurses and commit to set ratios of patients to nurses, something institutions have long resisted, in order to reduce their workload and increase patient safety.
In a major victory for the nurses’ union, Mount Sinai and Montefiore medical centers, two of the biggest in New York, agreed last week to do just that, ending the strike in three days.
Given how heavily regulated and bureaucratic America’s health care system is, it may come as a surprise that hospitals aren’t legally required to have a certain number of nurses on hand per patient. Especially since similar rules are in place in other highly regulated industries. Federal regulations require a strict minimum number of flight attendants on each flight depending on the type of aircraft. If the airline is even one short, the plane remains on the tarmac.
Yet nurses in an intensive care unit, a cancer ward, an emergency room or a labor and delivery ward can routinely find themselves juggling many more patients than common sense would suggest they could care for, never mind best practices recommended by medical experts. One striking nurse I interviewed last week told me that he routinely had to juggle 15 to 20 patients, significantly more than the recommended number. Only California regulates the ratio of nurse staffing in every hospital unit. Efforts to expand this practice elsewhere have failed.
This is not a problem created by the pandemic. For years America has been grappling with a nursing crisis, which is now peaking just as our health care system faces perhaps the biggest challenge in its history: the relentless care needs of the aging baby boomer generation.
Yet at precisely this moment, when demand for health care is surging and pay for nurses is rising, tens of thousands of nurses have already fled the profession. Even before the pandemic, surveys showed that roughly half of nurses reported experiencing burnout and one-fourth were planning to leave their job in the next year. Now it is about one-third. By 2025, the U.S. health care system could be short as many as 450,000 nurses.
We have known for a long time that inadequate nurse staffing leads to more patient deaths. In a 2002 peer-reviewed study, researchers found that each additional patient assigned to a hospital nurse increased the likelihood of premature death by 7 percent. And yet understaffing is the rule, not the exception.
This is why one should not create a largely unregulated medical system where large corporate entities can run hospitals for massive profit. There are two great ways to increase profit. Oppress labor and treat people in the hospital like trash. This leads to death. Labor unions are anti-death (well, except for the damn cops). Pretty clear path to winning here by exposing this hell.