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When Nurses Strike

Jacobin Magazine: California is currently the only state in the nation with minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratios. When other state legislatures have tried to follow suit, powerful hospital industry associations have blocked passage of all similar bills.Last Thursday and Friday, the most frequent sight in scenic Burlington, Vermont, was not the usual horde of summer tourists vacationing by the shore of Lake Champlain. Instead, it was 1,800 nurses striking against their employer and the largest hospital in the region, the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVM-MC), over issues affecting thousands of patients.

It was the first strike by the nurses since they originally got organized sixteen years ago and constituted one of the largest work stoppages in recent Vermont history. And it definitely benefited from an outpouring of community support, reflected in the scores of red yard signs displayed by residents of Burlington and neighboring communities which called for a fair contract, safe staffing levels, and putting “patients before profits.”

At stake in this still unresolved struggle is what kind of “not-for-profit” institution their campus-based employer is going to be for nurses and their patients. Will its financial priorities include nurse retention and safe staffing levels or just more splurging on executive compensation and medical empire building?

In any hospital, registered nurses and nursing assistants make up the largest percentage of the labor force because patients are not admitted to hospitals unless they need nursing care; and today, with more technological interventions and intensive monitoring, they need more than ever before.

When a nurse doesn’t have time to turn a patient in bed, that patient can develop an excruciating and costly bedsore. When a nurse can’t give prescribed medication on time, a patient may develop a serious infection or suffer from unremitting pain. When a nurse is running among eight different rooms, that nurse will not have time to notice a subtle change in a patient’s condition that indicates a catastrophe is about to happen.

It also means that nurses are rushed past educating patients about how to stay healthier.

“I have no time for following up with patients because we can’t recruit enough other NPs [since] this hospital pays so much less than its regional peers,” Adie told me. “Because of my workload, I wake up in the middle of the night because patients haven’t been called with the results of labs or imaging tests. There are days when I leave the hospital an hour beyond my scheduled time because I need to do follow up.”

Among those out-of-state RNs rallying behind the VFNHP last week in Burlington were members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association. The MNA is sponsoring a ballot measure this fall that would limit the patient loads of Bay State hospital nurses. California is currently the only state in the nation with minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratios. When other state legislatures have tried to follow suit, powerful hospital industry associations have blocked passage of all similar bills. This has forced unionized RNs, like those represented by VFNHP, to seek contract language limiting how many patients can be assigned to a nurse at the same time.

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