Bringing empty shoes to honor the dead, nurses descend on Capitol
National Nurses United installed a memorial to honor the more than 160 nurses who have died from COVID-19. Nurses are demanding the Senate act now to pass the HEROES Act and ensure optimal PPE for frontline health care workers. | Rick Reinhard / NNU

WASHINGTON—Bringing 160 pairs of empty nurses’ shoes to memorialize colleagues lost to the coronavirus pandemic, National Nurses United members descended on the U.S. Capitol to demand Congress order their bosses to provide them with personal protective equipment (PPE) as part of the next economic stimulus law.

The nurses carefully arrayed the shoes on the Senate side of the building’s lawn—the same stretch of green where Black Lives Matter campaigners stood with signs the day before urging senatorial passage of the same measure, the Heroes Act. Then nurses held up pictures of dead colleagues.

With almost 200,000 registered nurse members, NNU is the largest registered nurses union in the U.S. In protecting both patients and nurses, it’s one of the most militant. And now the union has turned the lack of PPE into the big issue in organizing at least 1,600 registered nurses in western North Carolina’s biggest hospital, in Asheville.

Whether the NNU’s registered nurses or the BLM demonstrators will move the Republican U.S. Senate majority to defy its bosses—GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump—will be decided before August 8, in votes on the Heroes Act.

In March, the Democratic-run House passed its $3 trillion version of the measure, including NNU’s provision: ordering Trump’s OSHA to issue an emergency rule, to take effect now, forcing hospitals and nursing homes to develop and execute anti-virus protection plans.

Had such protections been in place, NNU contends far fewer nurses would have caught the coronavirus, much less died. And health care workers are among those “essential” workers most vulnerable to the virus. For example, a study two months ago in Washington state, site of the first multiple U.S. outbreak of the virus—in a nursing home—showed RNs made up 13% of the state workforce, and 37% of workers who tested positive for the coronavirus.

McConnell, however, apparently wants a skimpy bill, with a little more money for the jobless, some $100 billion to help schools reopen and little else, except for his own pet cause: catering to corporate capitalist demands to be completely free from lawsuits from consumers and workers who catch the coronavirus on job premises, through at least 2024.

“As we have seen from news coming out in the past few days, this pandemic is only getting worse,” NNU said in a call-your-senators e-mail. “That means nurses and patients will be in even more danger the longer we work without these protections. The Senate must require hospitals to provide PPE and ensure our workplaces are safe so we can continue to fight the pandemic.”

The union provided a national number for supporters to call, 202-335-6015,  its coronavirus hotline, and a petition to sign to send to senators:

Both the hotline and the petition have two demands to lawmakers. One is to order mass production of PPE by forcing Trump to use the Defense Production Act to mandate it. The other orders OSHA to implement that national anti-coronavirus standard.

“Nurses are dying. Pass the HEROES Act.” | Rick Reinhard / NNU

During the Democratic Obama administration, OSHA started work on an NNU-pushed permanent national standard protecting health care workers against all airborne viruses and pathogens. Hospitals lobbied against it and Trump killed it.

Even as NNU lobbies for a national standard for PPE, to protect themselves and their patients, lack of PPE may lead to an NNU breakthrough in North Carolina. The union is using the issue to galvanize nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, N.C., to vote union.

If NNU succeeds in its first such drive in the Tar Heel State, it could open the way to other unions to use employer refusal to protect workers against the virus as an organizing tool—even as social distancing and similar measures eliminate door-to-door organizing. Now it’s done, NNU says, by phone and zoom.

Asheville RNs signed union election authorization cards and turned them into the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office in the union-light state, just as the pandemic started to hit. Protecting workers and patients from its impact, via masks and other PPE, was a big selling point. The hospital employs at least 1,600 RNs.

A check of NLRB records show no election date has been set yet. At the time of the petition, the hospital was starting to see 15-20 new daily coronavirus cases. Now the count is 26 and rising, the Asheville Citizen-Times reports.

“Nurses at Mission are organizing to ensure the western North Carolina Community receives the highest standard of care possible. However, currently, conditions at the hospital are such that patient care is suffering,” the letter to hospital administration said then, as RNs marched on their bosses’ office.

“Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated all existing issues and we are on the verge of a local healthcare crisis if steps to alleviate the situation are not immediately taken.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).