NYSNA Part II: Bargaining, Backsliding, and Bravery

By Tre K

What is your occupation?

I’m a nurse working night shift in a medical intensive care unit at The Mount Sinai Hospital located in East Harlem.

What union are you a member of?

I’m a rank and file member of the New York State Nurses’ Association (NYSNA), a 42,000-member union.

How long have you been a member? How would you characterize your involvement with the union?

I became a member in 2016, when I started working at Kings County Hospital, a public sector Trauma I hospital in Brooklyn. I’ve been a shop steward since 2018 and was part of the Contract Action Team (CAT) during our recent contract fight.

In February’s column we covered the problematic working conditions that led NYSNA nurses to the picket lines. Can you talk about how negotiations have progressed since then?

A lot has happened. After six months of negotiations by executive committees representing over 10,000 nurses at NewYork Presbyterian, Mount Sinai Hospital, Mount Sinai West/St. Luke’s, and Montefiore, we had made little progress on our key demands for safe staffing ratios, improvements in retiree health coverage, wage increases, and a safer environment for patients and workers. Finally, with a powerful 97% strike authorization vote, NYSNA leadership announced plans to strike. DSA members, PSC $7K or Strike activists, community groups, and labor allies mobilized to the pickets and rallied with us. The DSA Labor Branch later held a fundraiser, collecting over $1,000 in strike funds.

Solidarity poured in from other organizations and community groups, building rank-and-file confidence and serving as an antidote against the fear of going out alone. But most significantly, there was a change in the way we talked about our power in the workplace. It was incredible to see how a massive, heterogeneous and formerly passive workforce was readying itself to strike.

I don’t mean to overstate things – nurses weren’t discussing the overthrow of capitalism – but, we were discussing the strike as the best available tool for the working class. We saw ourselves as part of a larger movement, along with the striking LA and West Virginia teachers, that could disrupt the status quo, transform our working conditions, and maybe upend the organizing logic of our healthcare system.

But on March 22, the bargaining committees decided to withdraw our strike notice. They later explained that the bosses offered new bargaining terms for staffing and retiree health – contingent upon the removal of the strike date. At the same time, the nurses’ committees were told that a $15 million deposit for replacement workers (scabs) was due that evening. The threat was raised that the deposit would be taken away (the mediator used the words, “pissed away”) from the same funds that would otherwise satisfy our staffing demands. Somehow, the bosses were able to use our own strike date to twist the bargaining committee’s arms and convince them to lift the strike.

While some nurses were undoubtedly relieved that the impending strike was called off, many rank-and-file nurses, shop stewards, and leaders expressed confusion and in some cases open opposition and anger. The day after the strike was canceled, I rounded multiple units with another shop steward at Mount Sinai. We spoke with dozens of nurses. One almost kicked us off the unit, yelling, “We don’t want to see NYSNA here. We don’t want to hear from NYSNA. You took away my strike.” After explaining that we did not have any say in the decision, the nurses were vehement that management would no longer feel pressured to give in to our demands for staffing. Some nurses said, “They should have asked us what we thought, instead of making the decision on their own. We voted to strike, how can you back down without another vote?” The feeling that “someone else” was calling the shots began to emerge. However, the majority of officers in the bargaining committees stood by what they called a mere postponement of the strike.

A petition was written and circulated by rank and file members, including dozens of shop stewards and contract action team members, urging bargaining committee members to put in the strike notice again and not give in to management’s tactics.

Two weeks later, the committees and employers arrived at a tentative agreement (TA) that they brought back to members for ratification. The official message from NYSNA leadership was loud and clear: the agreement was a “breakthrough,” a historic victory for nurses, and included unprecedented terms for the enforcement of nurse-to-patient ratios. This was echoed in mass mailings, mainstream press, the union’s website, and Facebook and Instagram posts.

However, another perspective percolated broadly among members. In the closed membership Facebook groups – with NYP being the exception – there was a deluge of comments, questions, and skepticism about the contract. At Mount Sinai Hospital, nurses working in all areas of the hospital felt that the contract was far from a victory. At town hall meetings, on social media, and in face-to-face meetings among shop stewards and active leaders, nurses criticized the TA for falling severely short on staffing. They balked at the enforcement process outlined in the agreement, where specific staffing guidelines would be determined only after ratification. Many felt the final deal failed their aspirations for real change.

The discussion between rank and file members, shop stewards, and the executive committee heated up, and in some cases got ugly. Some comments were strikingly personal, and executive committee members came off defensive and resentful. There was an increasing tension between executive committees and NYSNA staff on the one hand, and rank-and-file members on the other. Many undemocratic measures were implemented to influence the outcome of the contract ratification. The independently organized rank-and-file opposition to the TA was labelled conspiratorial, irresponsible, and “disrespectful” by staff rounding units and executive committee members on social media. Staff from other facilities were brought in and in some cases took over the ratification process, urging members to vote “yes,” rounding all hours of the night, and phonebanking. I think this further widened the divide between leadership and members.

In the end, three hospitals voted a majority to ratify the contract and Montefiore nurses voted it down by a slim margin (51%-49%). About a week later, Monte nurses voted to ratify a second, slightly altered version of the TA.

Are there issues you feel your union should organize around that are not currently being addressed?

A year ago, I would have answered this question very differently. I might have said the primary challenge for our union was to engage more members in general union activism, in the collective fight against the boss. I would have said that we need to form a network of shop stewards and organic leaders who can serve as guiding lights, mobilizers, coordinators for their coworkers. This is still a major focus. But in some ways, at Mount Sinai, we were able to accomplish these objectives. Just weeks ago we were strike ready.

Now, other contradictions have come to the fore. Many nurses are feeling discontented with the leadership’s top-down methods; there’s a strong feeling that the union capitulated to management. There is a nascent, yet hardened current of rank-and-file nurses who have come out of this fight as they should: with higher expectations, confidence, tactical skills, organizing capacity, and a more nuanced understanding of the union and the bureaucracy. I think nurses are doing what they can to fight back and strengthen their ability to fight the bosses by challenging and expressing desire for members to control their union.

What should socialists in unions/labor organize around that might bridge the distance between socialists and millions of workers?

I’d point to two necessary aspects: 1) the fight against the union bureaucracy (even the ones that look progressive on paper), modeling the tactics of workers’ democracy and self-organization, and 2) the concrete battle for political independence of the working class. This is essential for workers to make the leap beyond economic battles, trade unionism, and reformism – to become “a class for itself.”

Unions look and act like they do today because the role they have generally played is not to overthrow capitalism, but to negotiate the terms of capitalist exploitation. This has resulted in the bureaucratic nature of almost all unions, the hegemony of the Democratic Party among union officialdom, and the preference for electoral/legislative strategies over workplace militancy, mobilization and direct action. Union officialdom’s alignment with Democrats (NYSNA being no exception, having placed its bets on Cuomo and the bourgeois political machinery) subordinates our mass power to the will of the bosses and capitalists.

In the past, left militants and socialists have fought to go beyond these limits to make unions, strikes, and workers’ organizations “schools of war” for the class to develop politically, tactically, and ideologically. We need to hone our own tools, build our own political organizations and parties – not delude ourselves with fantasies of sharing a home with exploiters, developers, oppressors and imperialists.

When workers participate in class struggle, they can become more class conscious and open to socialist ideas. We should stand with them and support them, not shy away from the problems. Let’s borrow from the past, from other unions, and other countries where workers have fought and won, where rank-and-file workers and even socialists, anarchists, and communists led massive strikes and changed history. I invite DSA members and socialists everywhere to critically examine this experience and stand with the rank-and-file nurses and militant minority who are fighting for a democratic, combative, member-controlled union.

Tre Kwon is a shop steward and ICU nurse. She's a member of the NYC DSA Labor Branch and a founding editor/writer for Left Voice.