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Preparing To Strike: An Interview With A Bronx Nurse

Above Photo: Montefiore ICU nurse Michelle Gonzalez featured on NYSNA’s social media.

Left Voice spoke with Michelle Gonzalez, an ICU nurse at Montefiore Hospital and NYSNA union Executive Committee member, about the impending nurses’ strike in New York City.

How did you get involved as a union activist? How long have you been organizing at your hospital?

I started advocating for the union about ten years ago, and this is the second time being on the executive committee of my union. I got into organizing because there were all these issues, particularly issues related to understaffing, that affected us in the hospital. We were taking out our frustration on each other instead of coming together and fighting the boss. Many of us are involved now because we want to address the root cause of these problems.

NYC nurses almost struck in 2019. How is the situation different today?

We were in multi-hospital bargaining last time, and those of us who supported a strike were outvoted. We learned that multi-hospital bargaining doesn’t work for us at Montefiore, so we’re bargaining separately, and we’ve made sure the people in our bargaining slate believe in striking, and believe that it’s a tool the working class might need to use.

What are the biggest sticking points?

This is about staffing, specifically staffing enforcement. We already have pretty good ratios on paper in some departments [at Montefiore], but in Labor and Delivery and the Emergency Room, we have nothing. We always knew staffing enforcement would be hard to get in these areas, but that’s what we’re fighting for. Montefiore initially refused to make any movement toward ER/LD ratios. It was only after the strike notice was submitted that they offered a 1-6 nurse-patient ratio for the ER. But they are trying to apply that ratio only to people who will be admitted, meaning patients who get discharged the same day won’t be counted in the ratios.

Another part of this fight is over hallway beds. It’s a really disgusting issue that we’ve tried to address at community board meetings, but it currently looks permanent. People are being changed in public view in the hallways because of the shortage of beds. We are demanding the hospital create more beds and hire more staff so we can end the indignity of treating patients in the hallways. The hallways lack privacy, and they do not have oxygen hookups, so some patients get worse care. We want to change that. One of our other proposals has been to add 62 Nurse Practitioners to our Bronx hospital system. If they can invest in real estate and open new clinics, they can find space for every patient, hire more staff, and improve conditions.

Is it true Montefiore is also closing or trying to close community health programs as well?

There’s an article about Montefiore buying property at the expensive Hudson Yards development and starting an upscale clinic there, while simultaneously trying to close the Family Health Center in the Bronx, which serves a low-income population. Management threatened to close another clinic as well but had to backtrack on their plans because of public pressure. Montefiore management did succeed in closing its mother-baby program.

What are other Montefiore hospital workers saying about the impending nurses’ strike?

This week there’s a lot of dialogue between people from different disciplines in the hospital. The general consensus is that we all deserve better as workers and we’re all being abused in different ways. We’re asking traveling nurses to not cross the picket line; we’re asking other staff to come out on their breaks to support the picket. I think we’ve all realized that the only way we’re going to get better conditions is if we fight for it.

Can you say more about the impact of understaffing?

The most egregious thing happening to patients is in the ER and the hallways. The level of care is substandard. Nurses are struggling to deliver their medicines on time. It’s common that nurses are disciplined for accidents caused by understaffing. For instance, a nurse was reprimanded when the patient, who had been staying in a hallway bed, fell while in the bathroom. Instead of hospital administration taking responsibility for the low quality of care that results from understaffing, management tries to blame nurses for negative patient outcomes.

And that’s part of why we’re kind of losing it, mentally, as nurses. Our mental health has been really affected since COVID-19 happened. At first we were called heroes, but now when we’re asking for better conditions, we’re being called crazy. I’m tired of hearing excuses.

What was your experience working through the COVID-19 pandemic?

I have a lot of sympathy for med-surg [medical surgical] nurses, who had to learn how to act like ICU nurses overnight, because there were so many COVID patients who were gasping for air… we were so short of staff that people were waiting for basic treatment. There was a lot of trauma among nurses and patients. People left our hospital for better pay and for safer jobs… we lost respiratory therapists, we lost nurses… Everyone’s just so tired and burned out. In all of these jobs, we should be able to retire with dignity. That’s not the case at present.

Are nurses being retaliated against because of the strike notice?

The relationship with mid-level management is not as bad as I thought it would be. There’s a level of acceptance by management that there will be a strike. There has been some bullying and intimidation toward newer nurses in particular, though, with management misinforming workers about our rights and saying people could get locked out if there’s a strike.

How can working people support your struggle?

I hope that people watching our fight, our struggle, will come to our picket on Monday. And beyond that, I hope that wherever people live, people start thinking about organizing and fighting back. If we don’t fight back, things are going to get worse. I want working conditions for everyone in this country where we can go home at night and feel adequate with the work we did. I want people to watch this fight and for it to be a catalyst for them to fight in their own lives.

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