The Fight for PPE and Our Lives in the Eyes of a Socialist Nurse

By Tre K

As I write these words, the DSA is entering an important moment of reflection. A few days ago, Bernie Sanders ended his electoral run and announced his support for Joe Biden. This, along with my recent experiences organizing with other healthcare workers during the pandemic raises the question: which way forward for socialists today

I’m a registered nurse and NYSNA shop steward. I work in the ICU at Mount Sinai Hospital. Last year, I was heavily involved in organizing our near-strike and part of the rank-and-file “vote no” campaign to push bargaining committees to reissue our strike date and refuse to settle for anything less than our primary demand of safe staffing ratios (I talked about the struggle with Red Letter last spring). Over the last few years, I’ve participated in many NYC-DSA meetings and events primarily organized by comrades in the Labor Branch, including a fundraiser they held to raise strike funds for nurses. 

In December, I took a hiatus from the ICU at 37 weeks pregnant because I had dangerously low amniotic fluid levels, likely a result of dehydration. Though I was pretty upset, it didn’t come as a shock to me, because I often felt dizzy during shifts when I didn’t have time to take a break, eat a meal, or drink enough water. After birth, I planned to go on leave for 5 or 6 months to be with my baby and figure out being an umma

In mid-March – when Maia was 10 weeks old – the coronavirus pandemic hit and it became clear that we were entering a major public health crisis with disastrous effects on healthcare workers, the working class, and oppressed people. My plans changed. I couldn’t stay home during the crisis, although I worried Maia baby was too small to leave for so many hours at a time (I’d be away for 15 to 17 hours at a time). My partner and I figured out a plan for childcare, pumping, nursing, sleeping, and taking precautionary measures to prevent cross-contamination. I started picking up night shifts again in the ICU when Covid-19 positive patients were filling hospital beds throughout the city. 

The capitalist class and their media outlets have tried to present the pandemic as something that can be fought through individual actions: Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. Stay home! But this crisis wasn’t caused by individuals and it won’t be overcome by individuals either. This emergency was provoked by the inhumane profit motive inherent in the capitalist system. The US healthcare industry, for example, doesn’t care about saving lives if it’s not a profitable endeavor. No attention is paid to preventing infectious disease, even though developing vaccines for these diseases would save the lives of millions around the world each year. 

Protests have taken place at Jacobi and Montefiore in the Bronx, Harlem Hospital, my facility – Mount Sinai in East Harlem, NYP Columbia, and others. Most of the actions were organized by members of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA). In late March, Jacobi nurses held a protest in front of their emergency room. Their rage was palpable as they described lining up for their weekly PPE, reusing N95 masks for an entire week and watching co-workers fall ill with the virus. They spoke of sleepless nights and back-to-back shifts because of the staffing shortage. 

After seeing Jacobi nurses step forward, we were inspired to organize our own direct action at Mount Sinai Hospital. Our facility employs upwards of 5,000 workers and has 1,200 beds. Numerous workers had raised concerns about their exposure to the virus to both management and union. They pointed out unsafe quarantine and return-to-work policies, inadequate training for high acuity patients, scarcity of ventilators, monitors and negative pressure rooms, and short staffing. 

I got together with a group of stewards and rank-and-file nurses to plan an action calling attention to the crisis of inadequate PPE and hazardous working conditions. We formed the multidisciplinary COVID-19 Frontline Workers Task Force with the goal of including healthcare workers across trades. We decided we needed a committee that based its decisions and power in the democratically organized rank and file; to counter the conventional divisions that weakened us; to cut a different path than that of pro-management union leaders. Those of us directly caring for patients should be the ones who decide when we are safe to work or not.

We first assessed our immediate conditions in context of the nationwide scarcity. We discussed our objectives and sketched a plan of action. We collectively drafted a statement of purpose that explained our analysis of the situation for healthcare workers and put forward our most pressing demands. We pinned responsibility for the unfolding and extent of the coronavirus crisis on the for-profit healthcare system, hospital executives, and government.

We presented our statement and proposed plan of action to the NYSNA executive committee at our hospital, asking for their support and arguing that the most effective way to push for our PPE and safety demands was to take direct action and join the budding city-wide movement. 

The executive committee responded, “How would it look for the nurses at [Mount Sinai Hospital] who have one of the best PPE policies in NYC right now, to be demonstrating when down the block at Terrence Cardinal Cook (TCC) has next to nothing.” This message, discouraging direct action and our planned event, was posted on our 2,340-member facebook group. Then, just hours before our speak-out took place in front of the hospital, the executive committee posted, “NYSNA Demands being met @ MSH! Update on Our Current Wins!…Management has heard YOUR demands.” The timing, being hours before the press conference, was telling. Although we embraced any gains, we knew not to trust management. In order to keep up the pressure, we followed through with our speak-out.

The press conference was powerful. We drew the attention of national media, appearing in break rooms and living rooms across the country. We read the names of healthcare workers who died from coronavirus. We honored them and cried out, “Not another! We are not your body bags!” We defied the bogus narratives of Trump, Cuomo, and corporate executives by telling the truth about PPE scarcity and sick co-workers. We denounced the US healthcare system that puts profits before patients and workers. We sent solidarity to Amazon workers and other essential workers fighting back. 

Not one member of our executive committee of NYSNA staff showed up. Afterwards, they acted like nothing happened and maintained that all progress was a result of weeks-long, closed-door negotiations with management.

I’m sharing this because our experience is not an exception in the labor movement. Union leaders and other officials who are cut off from members is a widespread phenomenon in the US. Most union leaderships have long submitted themselves to the neoliberal agenda and the dictates of the pro-business Democratic Party. They put their faith in lobbying, petitioning politicians, and “teaming up with” or concessionary bargaining with management that does nothing to reverse the spiral of labor’s declining power and worsening living and working conditions. 

When looking at past reform efforts in NYSNA and unions around the country, a repeated error has been the over-reliance on reform slates, elections and replacement of officers, rather than the continuous revolutionizing of the union, the constant renewal and recruitment of democratic, combative shop stewards and mobilization of the rank and file. Some examples include: making elected leaders revocable and rotating; democratic assemblies open to all members; strike committees, workers’ committees (like the frontline worker task force), as well as shop steward’s councils.

All the workers speaking out, organizing, and walking out today are changing the conversation. The lesson we draw is that our real power lies in the unity and fightback of rank-and-file members against the for-profit healthcare system, corporate executives, and the government. 

Now, we are preparing for a national health care day of action where we can raise the call for the complete nationalization of healthcare – removing private interests and profit from patient care altogether. Nurses from multiple facilities around the city have contacted members of the COVID-19 Frontline Workers Task Force to help them form their own committees.

This sector of combative workers point a way forward for the DSA. The most pressing, revolutionary task that we as socialists and DSA members can accomplish now is to converge with these struggles and form an independent working-class party that fights for socialism.

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