A Union of Heroes, Not Martyrs

By Lance Chilton

On April 21, several dozen nurses representing the nation’s largest nurses’ union, National Nurses United, held a demonstration in front of the White House to demand adequate protective equipment (PPE). They read the names of fifty US nurses who died from COVID-19 during the past several loooooooong weeks. There has been no recorded reaction from inside the White House.

Democrats have long supported the rights of workers to unionize and demand decent, safe working conditions and a fair share of the fruits of their labor. Whereas, insensitivity or outright antagonism toward unions is a Republican hallmark of the last several decades, as the percentage of Americans who are union members has plummeted, from 21% in 1980 to 10.5% in 2018. Some salient examples of attempting to squelch unions might include the steel industry’s violent efforts to break the historic Homestead Strike in Pittsburgh in 1892, and Ronald Reagan’s firing of unionized air traffic controllers who’d gone out on strike in 1981. Scott Walker, former Republican governor of Wisconsin, was defeated for re-election in 2018 partly because of his open antagonism toward unions, including the unions of state workers, but “right to work” (i.e., to not be required join a union) has continued to be introduced and passed in many states, mostly the red ones.

It’s no coincidence that the decline in union participation has been accompanied by increase in income disparity in the United States.

Nurses and other health care workers may be lauded as “heroes” at the moment, given their often-selfless service in dealing with the COVID outbreak, but they haven’t always been given the credit or respect they deserve. As with those in many female-dominated professions (like teachers and flight attendants and secretaries), nurses have been overworked, underappreciated and underpaid. Forming unions has been one important answer: Using the threat of a strike, National Nurses United has been successful in negotiating a favorable agreement with such large employers as Appalachian Regional Healthcare hospitals. The union, 185,000 strong, was founded in 2009 and is the nation’s largest nurses’ union.

During National Nurses’ Week, which starts May 6 and ends on Florence Nightingale’s birthday, May 12, we should celebrate these heroes and help them to avoid becoming martyrs. Providing them with appropriate PPE would seem obvious, but leadership from the White House has been lacking. The ability of the states to do so is compromised by poor overall supply, by lack of coordination and by outright competition for these scarce resources, and by highly stressed state budgets. Unions may help to make the case strongly for PPE and for bringing up the salaries of these critically essential workers.