By Lance Chilton
One of the “aims and purposes” of National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees National Union of Hospital is to “Educate on ‘trade union principles.’” I spoke with the Union’s District 1199NM Executive Director, Eleanor Chavez, about those principles. “You stand in solidarity with other workers, support strikes and boycotts and don’t cross picket lines, and buy union products. You support the good of the whole.”
With these principles in mind, 1199NM has taken important stands and won important victories not just for its 5000 plus workers, but also for all New Mexicans. For example, union members working in emergency rooms as well as other New Mexico citizens throughout the state might be at risk of contamination in the case of a radiation spill; thus 1199NM has stood against storage of radioactive waste in the state.
The COVID pandemic has stressed everyone in the state, but especially the hospital workers – clerks, physician assistants, nurses, nurse practitioners, housekeepers, pharmacists and others – who form the membership of 1199NM. Ms. Chavez noted that hospital workers are often asked to reuse personal protective equipment (PPE) that are only meant for single use; she lays the blame squarely on the President and his failure to invoke the Defense Production Act to produce PPE in adequate quantities. 1199NM has prodded hospitals to provide adequate leave for employees needing to quarantine after a COVID exposure, and to be lenient with employees with underlying conditions or with family members with risk factors for severe disease. And as with unions elsewhere, 1199NM has advocated, often successfully, for higher wages and better working conditions for health care workers, members or not.
1199NM is active on the legislative front as well. Over the past several years, Democratic representatives and senators, including Joanne Ferrary, Linda Lopez, Liz Thomson, Christine Trujillo, and Harry Garcia have worked alongside 1199NM to pass a “Patient Safe Staffing Act, “ which would mandate a method for assuring adequate staffing. Not providing adequate staffing exposes patients (and their caregivers) to medical errors caused by exhaustion and overwork.
1199NM is also in strong support of the recurrently introduced Health Security Act. As Ms. Chavez stated, “COVID has highlighted inequities in health care system. [Under the Act],everyone has would have the same, non-job-related health care. Everyone in the state and the state would benefit from it, reducing cost. We see what happens to those without health care coverage.”
If health care workers are heroes, as we believe they are, then Eleanor Chavez and the union are heroes of heroes, on a very high pedestal indeed.