Happy May Day! Workers from across the U.S. are striking this May Day to protest unsafe working conditions, lack of sick leave and hazard pay, and policies and procedures that put their lives at risk during the pandemic. RNs from unions and hospitals in 13 states and 139 hospitals are holding May Day actions, according to National Nurses United. Even before the pandemic, nurses across the U.S. were working in understaffed hospitals that expected them to do more with less as healthcare executives’ salaries soared. As the pandemic escalated, nurse whistleblowers were fired or threatened for speaking out about the dangerous conditions of patients and staff at hospitals across the country.
The CDC has waffled on their guidance for protecting healthcare workers while national bodies responsible for regulating the safety of patients (The Joint Commission) and workers (OSHA) have been notably quiet. At least 60 U.S.-based nurses have died since the pandemic began, however due to lack of widespread, comprehensive COVID-19 testing, including posthumously, this figure is likely underreported. Essential workers from Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, and Instacart also report illnesses and deaths due to lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and are taking part in strikes nationwide today.
May Day originated in the 1880s as demands for an eight hour work day in the U.S. soared and it is now an official holiday in 66 countries. During the Cold War, President Eisenhower deemed May Day, “Law Day” in an attempt to symbolically suppress support for International Workers and Unions which his administration associated with dangerous anti-capitalism. In many areas, but particularly in healthcare, prioritizing profit over people leaves Americans who cannot pay behind.
The pandemic illustrates what many nurses already know, tying employment to healthcare is a death sentence for many Americans. This particularly impacts people of color who are dying at higher rates due to a disease burden that is tied to: structural racism, food deserts, red-lining, and other political decision-making that implicitly denies opportunity for millions of Americans resulting in profound health disparities. People of color and women are more likely to be essential workers, and as such are at increased risk of becoming ill with COVID-19.
While nurses are often divided on the benefits of unions, the pandemic illustrates the organizing power and collective action of nursing unions in advocating for their members. The power of May Day is the ability to engage in collective action with colleagues to advocate for ourselves and our patients. At Radical Nurses we stand with these nurses and other essential workers as they advocate for equity and justice for themselves, their families, and their communities. This could all be different.
Vanessa Shields-Haas is a forensic nurse, nurse practitioner student, and activist for harm reduction, comprehensive sexual education, LGBTQ rights, and reproductive freedom.