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Healthcare workers on the Line: Labor Day and a New Wave of Union Activism

“It takes a lot for health professionals to leave the bedside for the picket line.”

It takes a lot to get a bedside nurse or health professional out on a picket line instead of being with their patients. It takes chronic short staffing that leaves patient care compromised. It takes management that sets staffing levels based on budget lines and spreadsheets formulas rather than on patient needs. And it takes a persistent lack of respect for the voices of nurses and health professionals who are on the frontlines of care every day.

Leading up to this Labor Day, nurses and health professionals nationwide—from Oregon to Vermont—have been out on the streets, walking picket lines, and even going out on strike. Healthcare workers are fighting for safe staffing levels and workloads, so that all patients, in every hospital and clinic, get the care they need and deserve.

No matter where health professionals live and work, they often tell the same stories: patients waiting hours for care due to too few staff; nurses, respiratory therapists, or mental health professionals working long overtime hours to compensate for the shortage of staff on the schedule; no time to spend with patients or their families; mistakes just narrowly averted.

We know the statistics—dozens of studies over the past decade show that having enough qualified staff at the bedsides of our patients is the difference between getting well and being readmitted, between going home or getting an infection, and even between life and death. 

Nurses and health professionals are, quite frankly, fed up—not only with chronic short-staffing but with having our voices ignored by hospital and clinic management. That’s why healthcare workers are continuing to build strong unions, why we are taking more serious public actions, and why members of my union, the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, AFT Local 5017 are leading the way to safety.

Recently, here in Oregon and Southwest Washington, OFNHP members took to picket lines, alerting the public to the need for Kaiser Permanente management to take our concerns seriously. It’s one thing for a hospital to advertise in every newspaper and on every website that it offers the best care—it’s another thing to invest in recruiting and retaining the best frontline caregivers to live by that commitment.

For healthcare workers, Labor Day is just another working day for most of us, as many holidays are. As we care for our patients and communities, we will continue to speak out for what we need to provide that care: enough nurses and other crucial healthcare professionals; respect for our professions, our experience, and our voice; and contracts that help recruit and retain the most qualified staff.

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