‘We have the power, we run this’: Thousands of New York nurses go out on strike

Photo: NYSNA members and supporters outside Montefiore on the first day of the strike, Jan. 9. Liberation photo

The New York State Nurses Association, the largest union of registered nurses in the state, went on strike at two hospitals — Montefiore and Mount Sinai — on Jan. 9. More than 7,000 nurses are on strike for fair contracts to hire more staff to improve patient care and nurses’ working conditions.

NYSNA had recently completed a vote to authorize a strike before their contract was set to expire on Dec. 31. Nurses from BronxCare, Montefiore, Mount Sinai Hospital, Mount Sinai Morningside and West, New York Presbyterian and Richmond University Medical Center completed their votes with 98.8% of the 14,000 nurses supporting strike authorization. On Dec. 30, eight hospitals delivered their 10-day strike notice, signaling a strike if an agreement is not reached. Since then, six of the eight hospitals reached agreements. NYSNA joins the chorus of unions pushing for equitable conditions for their workers in the midst of rising inflation and an ongoing pandemic. 

While media narratives promote nurses and health care workers as frontline heroes, the reality of their experience paints a less glamorous picture. The images of nurses wearing trash bags and improvised PPE during the onset of the pandemic have faded from the media. From the onset of the pandemic in 2020, many nurses have been overwhelmed by their working conditions that often prevent them from providing the appropriate and necessary care to their patients. “Nurses have been to hell and back, risking our lives to save our patients throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes without the PPE we needed to keep ourselves safe, and too often without enough staff for safe patient care,” says Nancy Hagans, NYSNA President and frontline nurse at Maimonides Medical Center. 

Nurses have been dealing with unbearable conditions as flu season peaks. “Right now, we are facing a tripledemic of COVID, flu and RSV. Our pediatric ER is overflowing and short-staffed on almost all shifts. It is unbearable to see children suffer because we don’t have enough staff to provide safe patient care,” says Aretha Morgan Pediatric ER Nurse at New York Presbyterian. Benny Matthew, a Registered Nurse at Montefiore hospital in the Bronx, echoed the sentiment: “In the Emergency Department, I sometimes care for 20 patients at a time, instead of a safe standard of 3 to 6 patients. This is not safe or fair for nurses or patients. It leads to worse patient outcomes, and it increases the risk of patient death.” 

The conditions are of particular concern when taking into consideration the demographics the affected hospitals serve. Many of the hospitals that face staffing shortages are part of New York’s safety net hospital system that provides care to patients regardless of their insurance or immigration status. The impact of these failures are felt most directly by Black and Brown working-class communities and serve to widen the existing healthcare divide. 

NYSNA is clear — hospital executives are actively fighting against nurses and patients while enriching themselves in the process. In a recent press release Nancy Hagans emphasized, “Instead of supporting us and acknowledging our work, hospital executives have been fighting against COVID nurse heroes. They’ve left us with no other choice but to move forward with voting to authorize a strike for better patient care.” Aretha Morgan added: “New York-Presbyterian, which paid its CEO almost $12 million in salary, bonus and perks in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, has failed to invest in hiring and retaining enough nurses.” The writing has been on the wall for years, yet executives have responded by increasing hospital prices and neglecting to hire and retain nurses to meet the demands and ensure safe patient care.

PSL members joined the picket lines at the Montefiore Moses location to stand in solidarity with striking nurses. Simone, an OB-GYN nurse with Montefiore for 22 years expressed outrage at the care that Black and Brown patients get at Montefiore: “We need to get them quality care that we provide as nurses. Patients came to me this week saying ‘Go out on strike, you deserve it!’ There is strength among us as nurses, we have friends, we have the power, we run this. Let’s stick together!” 

Another nurse, Avril, who has worked in ICU for 15 years, explained how the nurses’ working conditions impact patient care at Montefiore: “This is my community. I not only work here, I also live here. The working conditions are deplorable. I want people to know that it’s not just one unit, but it’s all throughout the hospital. With the pandemic, we thought there would be a change — that [hospital executives] would fix the staffing issues. And it got worse post-pandemic than prior to the pandemic. Vacancies have now doubled. This is not a new development. Patients are crowded in the [emergency department], and then they are packed into hallways, not even granted a room.” 

2022 was a year marked by an uptick in labor actions by workers across a wide range of sectors, and that fighting spirit is continuing into the new year. We stand in solidarity with NYSNA in their fight for safe staffing standards across all hospitals.

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