Life could be more wonderful, says Guardian report on nursing strikes

A recent Guardian piece describes an increase in labor actions by U.S. hospital nurses, apparently inspired by recent teacher strikes. Factors include understaffing and benefit cuts. A special focus is a strike in Indiana, PA, the inspiration for Bedford Falls in the film It’s a Wonderful Life.

December 22, 2018 – Today The Guardian had a good piece about a short nurses’ strike in the town of Indiana, PA—the inspiration for Bedford Falls in the classic holiday film It’s a Wonderful Life—and how that strike may foretell more nationwide, as U.S. nurses feel empowered by the recent wave of teachers’ strikes. Mike Elk’s article explains that nurses at the Indiana Regional Medical Center (IRMC) object to a management proposal to cut their benefits that would, ironically, make it harder for them to afford health care coverage. This report makes no real effort at balance, relying solely on union representatives and failing to consult management at all. Still, it makes some interesting points about common elements in the situations of nurses and teachers; some of the same unions represent them. It also raises some key issues nurses face today, including understaffing, benefit cuts, and gender bias. The piece might have done more to make clear which of its sources are nurses. And it might have included information about the serious harm to patients when nurses are understaffed and otherwise treated badly. But on the whole it’s a striking look at challenges in nursing today.

Fighting the Battle of Bedford Falls

The piece is “Pennsylvania nurses inspired by teachers’ strikes to ‘fight the same fight.’” The report’s general theme is that U.S. nurses seem to be gearing up for collective action, inspired by the teachers’ strikes and the increasing corporatization of health care, which has led to understaffing and benefit cuts.

But the frame is events in Indiana, PA, and from the piece, you might wonder if it has actually been renamed Bedford Falls. Wonderful Life star James Stewart was born in Indiana, but IRMC “is turning Stewart’s hometown into a Pottersville, the dystopian alternative universe of the Christmas classic.” Union leaders describe months of unsuccessful negotiations with the community hospital over a new contract. The Indiana Regional Nurses Association is “a joint organizing project of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).” Its leader Lisa Traister says some nurses are leaving because proposed benefit cuts will make health care benefits unaffordable. She also cites demands for reductions in paid sick time and scheduling changes. In November 2018, the nurses staged a one-day strike; the hospital locked them out for a week. PSEA organizer Annie Briscoe says it’s “like they are taking a page out of Mr. Potter’s playbook.” She returns to that theme toward the end, describing the support nurses have received from the local community “around the holiday and what better [place] to do that than in Indiana, the birthplace of Jimmy Stewart.” Even though it is now “Trump country,” the piece says, locals support the nurses, “with local restaurants lining downtown Philadelphia Street offering free food to the nurses and posting signs of solidarity.”

The rest of the piece offers a national perspective, with a focus on links between collective action by nurses and the recent strikes by teachers. Union leaders say the health protests are similar, driven by “underfunding of community healthcare systems, frustration with male-dominated management in a profession that is 80% female, and growing community support nationwide for unions.” The AFT represents more than 120,000 health care workers, and the piece quotes its president Randi Weingarten: “Nurses and educators are on the front lines every day, at great personal sacrifice, selflessly taking care of our most vulnerable – our young people and those who are sick. The wave of educator activism has inspired nurses to fight the same fight: for the people they care for, for the resources and security to do their jobs well, for fair pay, for adequate staffing, for latitude and autonomy, and for the right to be treated as professionals.”

The article describes recent labor disputes in California and Michigan. A week earlier, it says, 4,000 mental health clinicians in the National Union of Healthcare Workers went on a five-day strike from California’s Kaiser Permanente to protest severe understaffing. The piece notes that while the Kaiser clinicians are being “stripped of their pensions” (it does not explain that), Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson’s total compensation increased from $10 million in 2016 to $16 million in 2017. Meanwhile, University of Michigan health care system union president Kate Oppenheim decries the growing “corporatization of healthcare” and describes the trouble her union had recently in getting the system to agree to a more rigorous sexual discrimination policy. The piece says that women make up 80% of health care workers nationwide, but that the vast majority of hospital CEOs are male. Oppenheim does believe that labor action by health workers is now getting more support from the media and from local communities than it did in the past.

Overall the report is fairly helpful for nursing. It relies on a mix of nurses (like Traister and Oppenheim) and non-nurse union leaders to make interesting points about the similar forces driving labor action in nursing and teaching, two historically female-dominated professions that have struggled with stereotypes. The piece highlights some of the key issues nurses face, especially understaffing and benefit cuts. It uses the hook of the Wonderful Life comparison, with hospital leadership as the Mr. Potter character, who cares only about money. (Extra points for resisting any stereotype-reinforcing comments about nurses and angels getting their wings.) And the report emphasizes the gender imbalances in nursing and health care, which, to put it bluntly, tend to mean women do most of the work but men make most of the decisions and money. The article might have made clearer who is a nurse and included some specifics about what happens to patients when nurses are understaffed, including an increased risk of complications and death. And the piece might have been more effective had it been a little more balanced. That could have given readers a better sense of competing interests. But on the whole we thank those responsible.

See the article “Pennsylvania nurses inspired by teachers’ strikes to ‘fight the same fight,’” posted on The Guardian‘s website on December 22, 2018.

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