We are nurses and we won’t back down

July 16, 2018

Some 1,800 nurses at the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) in Burlington took to the picket lines for two days last week to fight for competitive pay and safe staffing levels.

To the nurses, members of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (VFNHP), the two issues are linked: Low pay at UVMMC compared to other hospitals in the region has led to high job vacancy and turnover rate, creating conditions that are demoralizing for health care workers and dangerous for their patients. But the nurses’ determination to make their struggle public and appeal for solidarity won them strong support from Burlington and beyond.

Tristin Adie, a nurse practitioner for the UVMMC system, writes about how the strike was transformative for her and her fellow union members.

ON FRIDAY NIGHT, I marched with hundreds of nurses, their families and supportive community members from our picket line outside the University of Vermont (UVM) Medical Center to downtown Burlington. After two days of being on strike against the second-largest employer in the state, we filled the streets of its largest city, wearing our red T-shirts and carrying signs declaring the importance of safe staffing and fair wages.

I’ve been a socialist and an activist for my whole adult life. I’ve marched in more protests than I can count (200? 300? who knows?). In the 15 years I lived in New York City, I marched with tens of thousands of union members through various campaigns. I was a member of the Communications Workers of America union, and participated in a victorious two-week strike against Verizon.

But the last two days, and last night’s protest in particular, were unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and it happened here in little old Burlington, Vermont: population 42,000. I’m still trying to figure out why.

MAYBE IT was the sheer breadth of participation in the strike. Despite sincere and deep concerns about leaving our patients in the care of scab nurses, entire units joined each other on the picket lines. The hospital itself admitted that only 93 of the 1,800 LPNs, RNs and APRNs in our union crossed the picket line.

UVM nurses on the march at the end of their two-day strike
UVM nurses on the march at the end of their two-day strike (Nikki Sturges)

I knew that the majority of nurses at UVMMC were angry about our working conditions. It was another thing to see that anger translated into a willingness to fight.

We organized 10 picket lines around town. Night-shift nurses maintained an overnight presence at the main hospital picket line. People made fantastically creative signs, taught themselves to lead chants and had special red T-shirts made to reflect the issues on their units. Some spirited souls even wore red tutus and ball gowns to the march.

Maybe, too, it was the community support. Hundreds of drivers passed us on the picket lines, laying on their horns, giving us the thumbs-up, pumping their fists in the air and flashing us electrified grins.

One UPS driver got out of his truck in order to run up and down our lines, high-fiving every single nurse he passed. Like other UPS drivers, he refused to cross our picket lines throughout the strike.

People brought nourishing, lovingly prepared food to our picket lines: roasted zucchini in herb sauce; homemade pesto; artisanal whole-grain bread; popsicles and ice water. Ben and Jerry’s drove a truck up, and served out ice cream by the cupful.

Teachers, university professors, grocery workers, EMTs, home care workers and so many family members of nurses walked the lines with us. A patient wearing his hospital gown — IV pole in tow — joined us in his wheelchair on the picket line. I’m crying as I write this.

Bus drivers shouted out solidarity to us over their PA systems as they drove by. A musician from Massachusetts played labor songs for hours, with lyrics refashioned to suit nursing issues.

Nurses from New York state and Massachusetts drove for hours to join us, even bringing along an inflatable, cigar-chomping “fat cat” that they positioned at a hospital entrance.

Local politicians joined us to give greetings. Sen. Bernie Sanders called in from D.C. to address us. Ordinary working-class heroes from across the country got their co-workers or socialist pals together to take pictures demonstrating solidarity with us. My favorite came from a comrade in India who took a picture together with her ill father, their fists raised in solidarity.

Maybe it was the timing. In Trump’s America, unions are supposed to be breathing their last gasps. After years of decline in the private sector, workers in the public sector are now facing the threat of extinction after the Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 Supreme Court decision.

But we’ve shown that workers can actually fight back against a twisted system, where corporate executives are rewarded with six-figure bonuses while we work longer hours, at a faster pace and for stagnant wages.

BUT IT’S more than all these factors. It’s something else: defiance, determination and confidence among people who are sick of being ground down.

Last night, someone played Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” over a megaphone while we were marching. I thought to myself that we ought to try chanting that, so I started it up: “We won’t back down, we won’t back down...”

Suddenly, the fists of everyone around me went up, and that gorgeous Vermont air was filled with a loud, unified message that we will not back down in the face of greed and indifference from our hospital administrators.

My fellow nurses and community members have been transformed by this struggle.

I think that’s what feels different. We went from feeling defensive to feeling confident. From worrying that the community would call us greedy or insensitive to knowing that the community has our backs. From thinking a union was something external — a service group, perhaps — to knowing that we are the union. Our strength comes from our numbers and our solidarity.

It’s not over, and lots of questions remain about what happens next. We may need to strike again, perhaps for more than two days. There is certainly support for this among our co-workers. While we were picketing together, dozens of nurses told bargaining committee members that they want us to announce when the next strike will occur.

But it was clear by the end of last night’s march that we’re in this to win it: for our patients, our coworkers, our community and for working people everywhere. And we won’t back down.

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