In low voices, we pass along news of coworkers who are sick at home with fever and shortness of breath, those who have themselves become ICU patients. The anxiety of catching the virus and passing it to our elderly parents, children, and partners bears down on all of us.
The wildly unchecked viral spread paired with supply and personnel shortages have pushed unsafe working conditions to new heights. Days after spending a single shift inadequately protected, any paramedic, nurse, doctor, or aide can end up in respiratory failure on a vent. We all heard of Kious Kelly, a 48-year-old-nurse who died after working when we were being denied even minimal personal protective equipment (PPE). We all hear of the dozens of MTA workers succumbing to Covid-19.
There is growing rage and a will to fight back. Workers who once feared retaliation are talking to the press, protesting, and walking off their jobs, demanding PPE to reduce our chances of contracting or dying from Covid-19. The “war against the virus” is in fact a pitched battle within a longstanding war of classes: the ruling and the working.
In contrast, union leadership at my hospital painted management in glowing words, negotiating behind closed doors and without meaningful member input. In a Daily News op-ed completely out-of-tune with the moment and shifting consciousness, our hospital’s NYSNA president Robin Krinsky wrote, “Now is the time for labor, management, union, non-union, self-employed, non-employed and everyone in between to work together to make the best of this unprecedented situation. We are working together to resolve issues as quickly as possible. Communication is the key. I’m asking my fellow nurses to escalate any issue to their supervisors or managers.” In a backhanded way, she blamed the nurses who were forced to DIY-our-way out of the PPE shortage: “You are not alone in this fight, but we cannot help if we do not know the issues taking place. Lack of communication at all levels led to nurses wearing plastic bags, not lack of supplies.” So there you have it. According to union officers, the inherently antagonistic relationship between bosses and workers could in fact be resolved by “communication” and “escalation.”
At the state level, we saw labor officials issue their routine statements and pleading letters to government officials. Unfortunately, the unions have not thrown themselves behind any city- or state-wide mobilizations for the monumental crisis of workers’ health and safety. Regardless, nurses began organizing actions throughout the city. For the most part, this was done by individuals and small groups with the resources and will to do so – with or without formal union support.
At my hospital, I got together with the core of militant shop stewards and rank-and-file nurses who organized the “vote no” last year. We formed the COVID-19 Frontline Workers Task Force at Mount Sinai that includes healthcare workers across trade and specialization. We based our decisions and power in the democratically-organized rank and file, with the belief that those of us directly caring for patients must be the ones who decide when conditions are safe or not.