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The strike by more than 300 nurses, respiratory therapists and X-ray technicians at Saint Michael’s Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey, has entered its third week. Workers are fighting a brave battle against inadequate wages, understaffing, lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and poor health care benefits.
These are the same fundamental issues that healthcare workers around the world are battling. In northwestern Germany, nurses have launched a four-week regional strike. In the United States, emergency medical service workers in New York, nurses in Buffalo, New York, Michigan, California and Minnesota are engaged in similar battles.
What is at stake in the struggle of health care workers in Saint Michael’s is more than better working and living conditions; workers face a profit-driven healthcare system that has contributed to massive deaths and illnesses during the pandemic.
Over the past two and a half years, healthcare workers have seen firsthand the failure of the ruling class to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2. They witnessed the preventable deaths of more than a million Americans, including hundreds of their colleagues. Understaffing, overwork and insufficient supplies of PPE have contributed to the high death rates and the enormous physical and psychological toll the pandemic has taken on healthcare workers.
Recently, the profession has been rocked by a disturbing series of suicides among healthcare workers. According to a March 24 report in Health Informatics News.
New Jersey, led by Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, a multimillionaire and former Goldman Sachs executive, is among the states hardest hit by the pandemic. New Jersey’s official COVID death toll is 33,760. The state has the seventh-highest number of pandemic-related deaths per capita in the nation, according to Worldometer. An estimated 600,000 people, out of a population of 8.9 million, are now suffering from long COVID. These deaths and illnesses are the direct result of the Democratic Party’s conscious subordination of public health to the interests of banks and corporations.
Saint Michael’s Medical Center epitomizes this criminal subordination of health care to private profit. The hospital is owned by Prime Healthcare, which employs 50,000 people nationwide. Its CEO, Prem Reddy, is a multimillionaire, and the median salary of its executives is over $200,000 a year.
The company and Reddy had to pay $37.5 million to the US Department of Justice in 2021 to resolve allegations that he bribed a cardiologist in exchange for patient referrals. In 2018, the company paid $65 million over allegations that it knowingly submitted false Medicare claims.
Despite its history of overcharging Medicare, the Ontario, California-based hospital system was still receiving nearly $600 million in COVID relief grants and loans from the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Now Prime is trying to impose austerity on workers at Saint Michael’s Medical Center. His proposed annual raise of 2% in a three-year contract would represent a huge reduction in real wages as inflation hovers above 8%. Prime also wants to eliminate “staggered” pay raises, which are seniority-based raises paid on top of contract raises. Additionally, the company is seeking to repeal a ban on “floating” so nurses can be assigned to any unit in the hospital, including those in which they have no work experience. The company’s entire proposition is aimed at maximizing profits by keeping the hospital understaffed and workers underpaid, regardless of the cost to patient safety.
The Jersey Nurses Economic Security Organization (JNESO), affiliated with the AFL-CIO, of which the Newark strikers are members, offers no strategy for a serious fight. JNESO is asking for annual increases of 6% over the three years of the contract, terms that do not keep pace with inflation and that would represent a significant reduction in workers’ real wages.
Moreover, JNESO consciously isolated the strikers. He did not call on other workers in Newark, one of the poorest big cities in the country, or anywhere else to join this strike and support it. Saint Michael’s strikers don’t even receive strike pay from JNESO or the largest nurses’ unions and the AFL-CIO.
If left in the hands of JNESO, the struggle of the Saint Michael workers cannot succeed. Unions have proven time and again that they subordinate the needs of their own members in order to protect the profit interests of employers.
Last month, the Service Employees International Union – United Healthcare Workers West ended a week-long strike at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles by imposing a concession contract that does not reduce the workload of nurses or does not include increases that keep pace with inflation. Last week, the Minnesota Nurses Association blocked a strike by 15,000 nurses and instead told health care workers to plead with Democrats to pass safe staffing legislation. But hospitals routinely circumvent these helpless measures, which are just as useless as the countless labor-management “staffing committees” that always come down on the side of management.
Healthcare workers can learn important lessons from the fight to defend former Tennessee nurse RaDonda Vaught, who was scapegoated by Vanderbilt University Medical Center for a medical error caused by unsafe staff and other measures of cost reduction.
Tens of thousands of rank and file nurses rallied to defend Vaught, who was charged with criminally negligent homicide. This large-scale mobilization, organized by rank-and-file nurses alone, around the slogan “We are all RaDonda”, was the main factor in the judge’s decision not to sentence the former nurse to prison. By contrast, none of the healthcare unions lifted a finger in defense of Vaught.
Vaught’s advocacy movement and the growing number of industrial action by healthcare workers show that the Newark strikers have powerful allies in the United States and around the world. Linking these struggles and leading them to victory will require new organizations and a new combat strategy.
In a recent online meeting hosted by the World Socialist Web Site Health Worker Bulletin, health care workers across the country formed a steering committee to create grassroots committees in every hospital and workplace. Through these committees, independent of unions and the Democratic and Republican parties, healthcare workers will be able to successfully fight against victimization and for better staffing, higher wages and safer working conditions.
The fight for these demands cannot be waged hospital by hospital or state by state. It cannot be carried out by negotiations and appeals to the powers that be, which base their policies not on science and the social rights of workers, but on the generation of profits for the super-rich. Health care workers must fight for a radical reallocation of resources away from war and endless Wall Street bailouts and toward health care, education and other vital necessities.
In the final analysis, what is required is a political struggle of the working class, independent of the two parties of the ruling class, against the capitalist system and the subordination of human life to private profit. This includes taking advantage of medicine and establishing a socialist health system to ensure high quality care for all.
Fill out the form below to learn more about how to create a grassroots committee.