As I approached the doors to Stevenson Dining Hall on Wednesday, April 24, a man stopped me and introduced himself as James. Clipboard in hand, he explained how the nurses at Mercy Allen Hospital were negotiating with hospital administrators and were considering striking due to being overworked and underpaid.
Last week, the Ohio Nurses Association entered negotiations with Mercy administrators over issues concerning nurses’ pay. ONA also filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against the hospital. Meanwhile, Oberlin’s Student Labor Action Coalition — a labor solidarity group — has been working with representatives from ONA to gain support. James was outside Stevenson Dining Hall gathering student signatures in support of their cause as a representative of the Mercy nurses (“Ohio Nurses Association Enters Contract Negotiations With Mercy,” The Oberlin Review, April 26, 2019).
“Oh, I’d love to sign,” I said almost immediately, and I did. However, I could not shake my discomfort about the idea of a strike being needed in the first place. The nurses’ reasons for striking mean they are still not being treated with the respect and fairness that they and all nurses deserve.
Most egregious of all, the mistreatment motivating the strike is not an isolated incident. Recent media stories demonstrate that the mistreatment of nurses is alarmingly widespread. For example, Washington State Senator Maureen Walsh argued that SHB 1155 — a proposed bill that would ensure uninterrupted meal and rest periods for nurses — was unnecessary for small rural hospitals with lower demand.
“By putting these types of mandates on a critical access hospital that literally serves a handful of individuals, I would submit to you that those nurses probably do get breaks,” Walsh stated during a debate on the Washington state Senate floor on April 23. “They probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day.”
Walsh’s argument reflects the toxic idea that workers contribute most to society only if they are working around the clock. Yet, the nurses at Mercy — likely the kind of facility that Walsh is targeting — already are. Even if Mercy only serves “a handful of individuals,” there is no overlooking the fact that the hospital only staffs 32 nurses.
“Each nurse is probably assigned to seven or eight patients. This is way more than the average number, which is usually four, maybe five,” I recall James explaining.
Even worse, Walsh’s rhetoric about rural nurses seems to be invalid given that 13,000 nurses in New York City threatened to collectively strike if hospital management failed to negotiate with the New York State Nurses Association by April 2. These 13,000 nurses worked at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York Presbyterian Hospital, and Montefiore Medical Center — three of New York City’s largest hospitals — and were threatening to strike over staff ratios deemed “unsafe,” according to the union.
As SLAC’s communications point and College junior Elsa Schlensker explained, giving nurses fairer working conditions benefits patients as well. Simply put, even in hospitals in the most densely populated city in America, nurses are still overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated; this ultimately means that patients suffer as a result, too. The nurses are simply demanding humane working conditions.
Throughout the dozens of doctors’ appointments I’ve had throughout my life, it is always the nurses who I remember providing the most ease and comfort in my experiences. First off, hospitals are scary places. Just the general atmosphere of the place can easily spark feelings of anxiety and discomfort. Additionally, working with ill or injured people — from a child with cancer to an elder with a terminal illness — involves a deep level of interpersonal communication skills.
While nursing is far from a thankless job, it never lets up. A friend of my older sister, for example, is currently in the medical field. Last year at Thanksgiving, he and his wife had to miss my family’s holiday dinner because they were working. A career like nursing not only involves putting aside one’s personal reluctance to work on a holiday, but requires that nurses actively and enthusiastically care for patients who may have to spend Thanksgiving and other holidays in the hospital.
The path to becoming a nurse is far from easy. Often, a nurse’s workplace is a hospital, a place in which people hope they never have to stay. Additionally, the patients whom nurses work with and the situations they are thrust into can be exhausting and emotionally taxing. For these reasons, the nurses at Mercy Allen Hospital and at hospitals everywhere should not have to strike in the first place. It cannot be more clear that nursing is a career path chosen out of a desire to create change and do good in the world