Despite the decades-long decline in the labor movement and the small numbers of unionized nurses, labor officials have seized on the pandemic fallout to organize new chapters and pursue contract talks for better conditions and benefits. National Nurses organized seven new bargaining units last year, compared to four in 2019. The S.E.I.U. also says it has seen an uptick in interest.
Nurses across the country from various unions have participated in dozens of strikes and protests. National Nurses held a “day of action” on Wednesday with demonstrations in more than a dozen states and Washington, D.C., as it starts negotiations at hospitals owned by big systems like HCA, Sutter Health and CommonSpirit Health.
Hospitals claim the unions are playing politics during a public health emergency and say they have no choice but to ask more of their workers. “We are in a moment of crisis that we’ve never seen before, and we need flexibility to care for patients,” said Jan Emerson-Shea, a spokeswoman for the California Hospital Association.
At the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago, the deaths of two nurses from the virus helped galvanize employees to strike for the first time last fall, said Paul Pater, an emergency room nurse and union official with the Illinois Nurses Association. “People really took that to heart, and it really fomented a lot of disdain for the current administration at the hospital.”
In their most recent contract, nurses there won provisions ensuring the hospital would hire more staff and keep sufficient supplies of protective equipment, Mr. Pater said. “We’ve been able to make, honestly, just huge strides in protecting our people.”
The hospital did not respond to requests for comment.
Some nurses remain highly skeptical of the unions’ efforts, and even those who favor organizing acknowledge there are serious limits to what they can accomplish. “I’m not sure that the union is enough, because it can only take us so far” since staffing conditions remain overwhelming, said Mrs. McIntosh, the Riverside nurse.
Many health care workers view vaccines as the beginning of the end of the pandemic. But large numbers — especially those who work in nursing homes and outside hospitals, who tend to have higher rates of vaccine hesitancy — are refusing to be immunized. During a crisis that disproportionately threatens health care workers of color, one recent analysis found that they are getting vaccinations at rates far below those of their white colleagues.