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Workers and Union, The resurgence: Part 1: Nurses in the nation’s capital strike

March 7, 2011

Workers and Unions on the Move: Part 1

March 4, 2011 WHC nurses march in front of the hospital, chanting "Unsafe Staffing Has Got To Go!' Many cars and trucks honked their support."

National Nurses United Update: This past Friday, I joined the National Nurses United (NNU) on their one day strike against Washington Hospital Center’s plans to slash the extra pay that nurses get for working the toughest jobs – emergency room and night shift. The most experienced nurses with most years of service could see annual salary cuts on the order of $10,000 of even higher.  However, WHC and parent “not-for-profit” MedStar plans cut other critical benefits as well – all in the name of cost savings.  But don’t’ be fooled by the “not-for-profit” tag; MedStar made $142 million in profits last year alone and is sitting on $1.46 billion in cash and investments. Translate “cost savings’ into “profits ahead of critical staff and their patients.

While the nurses have been willing to make concessions, they adamantly refuse to sacrifice their hard earned wages and benefits while top executives and investors profit. Most importantly, the nurses are not willing to accept measures that would compromise their ability to care for patients. Jean Marie Keppler, a nurse with more than 30 years of service makes it clear in this video:

Nurses save lives

WHC/MedStar ordered a 5 day lock out of the striking nurses (through Tuesday). According to union estimates, MedStar paid out $5 million to hire replacement nurses for the lockout period — from a company that specializes in fast  “scab” nurse delivery. Less costly alternatives were available and it is clear that MedStar means to intimidate the nurses.

My message to the nurses: I had the privilege of speaking at Friday’s rally as a long-term heart patient at WHC. “Thank you for being there when I needed you.  The night before my open heart surgery my wife Claudia and I were filled with anxiety. The RN on duty knew exactly how to calm us down – with warm tea, cookies and a lot of reassurance. And it was an experienced nurse, maybe one of you, who had the unenviable task of removing my breathing tube. My instinct was to bite down on the tube and I needed a lot of tender coaxing to let go. When I was parched in intensive care, there was a male nurse who gave me a small piece of ice and assured me that water embargo (needed to prevent choking) would soon be over. And at 3 AM that night when my daughter Rachael called for help, a nurse responded with in minutes that delivered the transfusion I desperately needed. But what if there had been fewer experienced nurses on hand? What if you have to wait 15 or even 30 minutes to get the help you need when you press the call button? I thank you again.”

Fewer nurses at WHC: According to NNU there is a high turnover rate at the hospital due to RN dissatisfaction with patient safety and economic standards. Since 2005, 1,300 nurses have left WHC. Although management reports that it has hired 500 new nurses, there are still 122 unfilled registered nurse positions in the hospital. See interview with Ken Zinn, Director of Strategic Campaigns, NNU.

To go out on strike – even for a day – is serious business. You may lose your job. And the WHC/MedStar executives have taken steps to instill fear; for example by locking out the nurses who struck on Friday for five days – the message is clear, “you can be replaced.”  I came away impressed by nurses willingness to take a courageous stand for their profession and their patients.

AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka walks the line


Union solidarity: I also came away happy to see that members of many different unions joined the striking NNU nurses. I’m sure I can’t list all of the unions present, but they included Teamsters, Firefighters, the Service Employees Union, International (SEIU), and many others. Richard Trumka, the President of the AFL-CIO walked the lines and made an impassioned speech on behalf of all workers from Wisconsin to Washington.

To see an ABC newscast linking the work stoppage to the actions in Wisconsin click here.

ALERT: If you are a Washington Hospital Center patient (past or present) and you want to sign on a patients’ letter supporting the WHC nurses, please email me at: and spread the word. Thanks, Hank Cole.

What’s next:

Part 2: Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey.

Part 3: A call to action to defend the America we know and love — “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rachael permalink
    March 7, 2011 3:04 pm

    Something I and a few others I know have been noticing. The pattern of bashing professions mostly staffed by women. Teachers, nurses. And the assault on Planned Parenthood and Choice Rights. This is an all out attempt to put women back by decades and decades. But it will really just put everyone back.


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