Could caregivers bring themselves to strike?

I worked at a unionized grocery store during college, which I did not initially give much thought to aside from questioning the $6 in dues deducted from my weekly checks. When it was time to cast my first collective bargaining vote, I closely studied the process with an almost immature amusement.

The politics being discussed among my fellow workers, ranging in age from early adulthood to post-retirement, were quite strange—despite a verbal consensus from most everyone that they would be voting Yea on the union’s negotiated agreement, the threat of a strike still felt imminent. So I probed a long-time baker about the prospect of crossing the picket line should a strike result.

“Don’t drive your own car in if that’s what you plan on doing,” he barked with a harshness I had not seen before. A union worker is your friend until you threaten solidarity—even with a harmless, if unnecessary, question.

I’m reflecting on this experience not solely because of the recent drama surrounding the National Labor Relations Board rules on union elections. It’s also because of this story about a cancer patient’s death during a five-day labor dispute involving nurses at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, Calif.

Thousands of unionized nurses in the Bay Area held a one-day strike on Sept. 22. A nurse who works at Alta Bates wrote that the strike was to “oppose cuts and closures by the hospital that nurses believe would jeopardize patient care.”

The peaceful demonstration, however, turned into a full-fledged lockout of the striking nurses. Alta Bates Summit Medical Center is an affiliate of Sutter Health, which barred the nurses from returning to work because it “needed to sign five- to eight-day contracts with firms that brought in hundreds of replacement nurses from around the country.”

One of those replacement nurses is reported to have given 66-year-old Judith Ming a nutrient solution intravenously instead of through a feeding tube. The nurses’ union is blaming the hospital for Ming’s death, saying the patient would not have died if the nurses were allowed to return to work after the daylong strike.

The nurses, of course, probably feel terrible. That’s not stopping some people from placing blame back on the nurses, arguing that the original strike was as “irresponsible” as Sutter Health’s lockout afterward.

That seems pretty unfair. After all, why should grocery associates be allowed to strike, but nurses can’t?

Imagine this: Wilted produce and rotten meat entombed in a dead-quiet supermarket. And no one on the picket line would give a hoot. (In fact, the separately unionized delivery truck drivers would also refuse to cross the picket line—now think of emergency response drivers doing the same during a hospital strike.)

Healthcare workers are a different breed. They have a vested interest in the well-being of their patients—not lifeless products on a shelf or an assembly line. And it makes me wonder, could caregivers brings themselves to stage a true, hard-nosed strike? The terrible accident at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center happened during less than a full week’s time.

Picture your residents, and all of their needs, in the care of replacement hands. Can you stomach the thought?

Topics: Staffing