Nurses’ campaign for Medicare for All gets boost from Sanders
Eric Risberg/AP

WASHINGTON—More than 150 nurses from around the country, members of National Nurses United, got a big boost for their drive from its prime congressional sponsors – Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., and Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minn. – but a mixed reception from other lawmakers as they descended on Capitol Hill.

The nurses were in D.C. on May 8 as part of National Nurses Week and to continue their long drive for single-payer government-run national health insurance for everyone in the country. Sanders has lined up 16 Senate co-sponsors of that Medicare for All bill, while Ellison has 122 lawmakers, more than half of the House Democratic Caucus, on board, too.

“Imagine a society where you can worry only about getting well, without worrying about going bankrupt” to do so, said Ellison about Medicare for All (HR676), which he took over from former Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. “This is wrong. This is a shame. And we are going to fix it.”

Not all Democratic representatives agreed with the nurses, however. Aides to Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., turned thumbs down on it in meetings with Chicago NNU members. They doubted how it could be paid for and called it administratively unworkable.

And Congress’ ruling Republicans – along with GOP President Donald Trump — are more interested in trashing the Affordable Care Act and taking health care coverage away from millions of people. Congressional Republicans gave NNU members polite receptions, but nothing else.

Sanders, who got a roaring standing ovation even before he spoke, praised the nurses for taking their principles of caring for people to the wider health care system, demanding the current system – which favors the insurers and the drug companies – be overturned in favor of single-payer. Single-payer, a longtime NNU cause, was what led the union to be the first to endorse the Vermonter’s 2016 presidential bid.

“You say that under the existing system, you as nurses cannot do your jobs,” he declared. “You don’t want to see people dying because they could not go to the doctor when they should.”

That, among other reasons, is why Congress should pass Medicare for All, the senator added. Curbing the drug companies’ high prices is another. “He’s adopted the entire NNU platform,” said the union co-president who introduced Sanders.

Sanders added an extra plank to the platform, which also includes free tuition at public colleges and universities: The Workplace Democracy Act, which he reintroduced on May 9.

“It says that if 50 percent of workers, plus one, want to form a union, they should be allowed to form a union,” he declared, to applause.

“We’re sick and tired about right-to-work and the rest of it,” Sanders added of the anti-worker anti-union legislation the ruling Republicans – in Congress and in the states – push. “That’s about driving wages down. This is to give workers the right to collective bargaining and to drive wages and benefits back up.

The measure mandates employer recognition of unions when they achieve National Labor Relations Board-verified majorities of union election authorization cards. The workers – not the bosses – could then choose between card-check recognition and an NLRB-run election.

The bill, which Sanders has introduced for 20 years, also would mandate bosses must start bargaining with the union within 10 days of unions winning recognition.

It also says if the two sides don’t reach agreement on a contract within 90 days after that, their dispute would go to compulsory mediation for 30 days. If there’s still no agreement, the remaining issues would go to binding arbitration.

The nurses cheered that legislation, too, but their lobbying focused on their issues: Single-payer health care, mandatory nurse-to-patient safe staffing ratios and legislation ordering health care facilities to develop and implement anti-violence plans. Some also discussed strengthening collective bargaining rights at Veterans Affairs Department hospitals, where NNU is the second-largest union.

Nurses interviewed found some lawmakers, and particularly their aides, unaware of the problems. The senior legislative assistant to Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, “was interested but non-committal on the three measures” she discussed – collective bargaining, single-payer and safe staffing — said Rhonda Risner, RN, director of the Dayton VA hospital unit of NNU.

But she’s going to keep lobbying Turner, since he was one of only two House Republicans who bucked his party and voted to keep the Affordable Care Act – for which Risner again thanked him, through his aide.

Christa Harris, a nurse at the University of Chicago hospitals, and and Lilybeth Segara, a nurse at Stroger (Cook County) Hospital, found they had to educate aides to Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., on the issue of workplace violence. “He didn’t believe it occurred,” Harris said.

But it does, and the two showed him some horrifying proof.

Segara pulled up articles on her cellphone about what happened to RN Angela Bonds two years ago. It wasn’t a case of “patients who kick and scream and hurt you” when you try to tend to them, Harris said. It was worse.

Bonds, a nurse at the University of Illinois-Chicago hospital, was shot to death by her estranged husband in the facility’s parking lot on May 24, 2016, as she was walking into work. The husband, Earl Roberts, was arrested and charged with murder.



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 tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.