The Supreme Court will hear the billionaire-funded case of Janus vs. AFSCME that threatens to silence the collective voices of health care workers. Patient care will suffer, and the health and safety of those who care for them is at risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention famously discouraged seven words: science-based, evidence-based, diversity, transgender, entitlement, vulnerable and fetus. Is “union nurse” also an endangered species?
Union-represented nurses, teachers, firefighters and any other public service workers can choose to be a member of a union — but the union is required to negotiate their contract whether or not they are a member. Since everyone benefits from pooling together resources and using a collective voice to demand better working conditions, every one contributes — either by dues or, if he or she chooses not to be a member, a “fair-share” fee. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Janus, the unions would still be required to represent all workers, even those who aren’t paying a fair share.
It makes as much sense as telling people that paying taxes is optional while the government is required to continue to providing services.
Nurses, like us, make up unions that are at the forefront of protecting both patients and health care workers. Nurses at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, with their union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), established some of the nation’s first nurse-patient staffing ratios, which led to California’s groundbreaking staffing mandate. Science-based nursing shows that patient mortality and medical error are reduced when health care worker staff is adequate.
Needlestick and sharps injuries resulting in life-threatening infections in health care workers were much more common before SEIU nurses and occupational health specialists — united in our unions — led the successful efforts for safer sharps devices in the workplace.
Evidence-based standards promise to allow nurses to not risk their own health in care for others. Health care workers have had a high occupational-injury rate because of musculo-skeletal injuries associated with patient lifting. Union advocacy for state requirements that hospitals provide devices to assist nurses to move patients promises to improve safety for both parties.
In the 1930s, wealthy elites formulated the “right to work” program that Mark Janus and his corporate funders are advocating today. In order to divide workers, white supremacist Vance Muse warned: “From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”
Even today, non-union hospitals pay white nurses more than others. The camaraderie of the union is reflected by the diversity of health care workers who call one another “brother and sister” and emphasize cooperation over competition. Health care unions have lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers who join their heterosexual and cisgender colleagues in providing care for all people without bias or discrimination.
Nurses united in unions serve as an important check on the greed inherent to the U.S. health care system that puts corporate entitlement above patient care. The U.S. spends far more money per capita on health care than other countries, but famously lags in results. Nurses and our patients deserve much better. Both public health and the human rights of workers are vulnerable. Nurses and all health care workers have faced challenges before and will not allow the corporate elite to use the Supreme Court to take their voice away. Our patients are counting on us.
Sasha Cuttler is a nurse at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and a delegate to the Nurse Alliance of the Service Employees International Union. Mary Magee works for the San Francisco Department of Public Health and was a leader in SEIU efforts to mandate safer sharp devices.