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Nurses’ Strike

Yesterday Minnesota was home to the largest nurses’ strike anyone can remember – 12,000 nurses picketing 14 hospitals.  There was a sea of red-shirted union members outside of United Hospital here in Saint Paul, including many from a new generation that hasn’t seen a labor action before.  Today, they are back at work without a contract.  The action was taken not for more pay or benefits but for something we all take for granted from a hospital – the nurses simply do not feel that the long hours they put in are reasonable or safe.  I, for one, cannot believe that it has come to this.

Nurses feel they are dangerously understaffed and have to care for far more patients than they can.  Worse, they are often called on to perform in specialty areas that they are not trained to work in.  Hospitals, for their part, have not said much to the public through this dispute other than to insist that current staffing levels are adequate and that they know best how to run a hospital.

The public generally supports nurses, which is to be expected.  This is just a few notches below mothers going on strike emotionally.  When someone is flat on their back, the very idea that the person caring for them does not believe that they are at their very best is frightening and, at some level simply wrong.  More to the point, this goes against everything that those of us with manufacturing experience have come to understand through Total Quality Management (TQM) and related methods for providing quality.

If workers do not feel they can safely and effectively deliver quality, their voice simply has to be heard.  One of the basic tenants of modern manufacturing is that anyone, anywhere along the assembly line, can shut things down until a problem is fixed.  That’s empowerment.  That’s a commitment to quality and safety.  It’s what workers at Ford and thousands of people who manufacture stuff across the USofA have come to expect as the only way to insure quality products are made.

Do we really value things that much more than people?

Staffing levels are a bit of a grey area in TQM and are always open to disputes.  But in the case of a service industry, which is what a hospital is, when the workers are this united in the belief that they cannot provide a quality product there is, by definition, a problem.  It at least needs more attention than hospitals have been willing to provide so far.  But we are told that no, this is the way it is and there is no room for compromise.

There has to be a lot more to this problem then we’re being told, and I can think of a few issues.  State budget cuts have fallen on hospitals quite hard lately, and all of the hospitals involved in the strike are non-profit operations that are constantly being squeezed.  If they are really so tight for cash that they cannot even discuss how to provide a level of staffing that brings confidence to their own workers there could be a problem with the system at large.  I accept that.  But to balance our budget on the backs of nurses is an utterly insane thing to do, if that’s what it’s come to.

Meanwhile, our nurses are trying to be as responsible as they can, calling a one-day strike and threatening more one day at a time as they have to.  I think they all deserve our support if for no other reason than they really aren’t asking for all that much.  If workers in any field do not feel that they can do a quality job, there is a problem, period.  Other fields have come to understand that and embrace it.  Why this isn’t built into our health care system is just one more example of how bad things have become.

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6 thoughts on “Nurses’ Strike

  1. I agree that this is just unbelievable. If they do not think they are safe they have to be able to get help. Lives are at stake! I do not understand why this is such a hard problem. If the budget is tight there must be many other places to save money that do not directly effect patients.

  2. I also have sympathy for nurses, but I’m sure there is a lot more to this than we know.

    There is probably still a severe shortage of nurses, meaning that they can’t hire more without paying enough to bring people in from other places. Getting staffing levels up to where the Nurses Association says they should be could be very expensive.

    That’s not to say that they don’t have a point, and I can’t imagine going to work thinking that people’s lives are on the line and feeling over-worked enough that I might make mistakes. That has to be a horrible feeling. But it may be a lot harder to fix this problem than we know.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Annalise, I agree that this is probably more complicated. I was thinking of going off on a tangent about our Gov, who was on the Daily Show last night (of all the times to be on the national media circuit!). Jon Stewart was in the process of asking about passing costs on to local governments and so on, but Gov Patches went on some wild tangent about iCollege and other weirdness he’s never even talked about before – clearly a diversion from the guy who will say any bullshit to deflect criticism.

    There is a deep, systemic problem here that is not well served by a labor action. But if that’s what it takes to force a crisis that we can’t ignore, well, that gets us somewhere in a world that would rather ignore problems like these.

    We’ll see how this develops. In the meantime, I’m with the nurses. We can’t let the burdens of our crumbling world fall on their shoulders, broad as they are.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head this time. They’re being treated worse than many factory workers and it’s time for the union to take a stand. I’m glad they are. I wouldn’t want to be in a hospital thinking my life is in the hands of people treated like they work in some sweatshop.

  5. “Time is short” wrote Paul Volker recently. Between military expenditures and rising health care costs due to demograhics and advances things are getting swamped. I wish I had the answers I do not.
    Hey by the way that’s the second time I heard Gov. Pawlenty allude to the powers of the i phone or whatever. Clearly it is part of his marketing message now. Is he ever gonna attract the title Governor Moonbeam/Goofy or some such moniker like Brown or Perpich had. Who by the way I find to be more interesting political figures.

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