WASHINGTON – About 500 union nurses, both registered and practical, fanned out on Capitol Hill May 6 to protest the billions in tax cuts George W. Bush and Congress are doling out to the rich while Medicare and Medicaid are slashed, 41 million people lack health insurance, and hospitals are woefully understaffed.

The occasion was the 9th Nurses Congress sponsored by the United Nurses of America (UNA), an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Members of other nurses’ unions also attended, including the United American Nurses, American Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union, Communications Workers of America, and United Food and Commercial Workers.

UNA Co-chair Katherine Sackman praised the newfound unity in the struggle but chided the attendees for not paying more attention to the plight of LPNs. “We know that nurse staffing is not at safe levels,” she said. “Now more than ever it’s important that nurses unite. We feel the crisis in health care as workers who care about our patients. We must reach out to others or they will stick us with the same numbers of patients.”

AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee touched off cheers, laughter and applause with a withering blast at George W. Bush and the Republican leadership of Congress.

“This White House crowd really plays hardball,” McEntee quipped, reporting that he sometimes crouches in his Washington office for fear they will “fly some of those bombers over” to take care of him.

McEntee decried the shortage of 100,000 registered nurses across the nation, a figure expected to zoom to 450,000 by 2008. He cited a report by the New England Journal of Medicine that 53 percent of doctors blame nurse understaffing for “medical errors.” That same report found a 31 percent higher patient death rate in understaffed hospitals.

McEntee linked the understaffing problem to the overall healthcare crisis, including 41 million uninsured.

McEntee said that the average cost of a prescription drug in 1992 was $28.50. By 2010 it will reach $72.94. Bush’s budget, embraced by the GOP leadership, slashes Medicare by $214 billion, Medicaid by $93 billion, and Food Stamps by $12 billion, McEntee charged. He praised the labor movement for mounting a pressure campaign on Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) that resulted in $20 billion in fiscal relief for cities and states, although the figure is far short of the need in the face of their $200 billion combined revenue shortfall.

“In my 44 years of public service, I’ve never seen our country in worse shape,” McEntee said. “Worse than Bush the father. Worse than Ronald Reagan … If this same crowd is back for another four years, the damage they have done, you can double that. We need to send George W. Bush back to Texas.”

He continued: “Cheney? We’re going to find him in that undisclosed location and lock him in there! And Tom DeLay? We’re going to send him back to that exterminating company in Houston.” The crowd cheered.

AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer William Lucy pointed out that airline pilots have strict limits on their hours of work for reasons of safety. “How about you guys?” he asked. “Certainly you know best how well you can provide care after hours and hours of work. I think we have to come together and demand that we will take care of the sick and injured … Bush dares to push a $726 billion additional tax cut while our nation’s budget deficit stands at $307 billion, while we have to pay the $100 billion-plus bill for the Iraqi war.”

Denuta Lobada, a registered nurse, told the World she has joined UNA’s drive to unionize her hospital, Resurrection Medical Center, as well as St. Francis Hospital, both Roman Catholic healthcare facilities in Chicago. “On March 15, we had a summit for all the nurses, dietary workers, housekeepers, lab technicians, and pharmacy workers,” she said. “We’re trying to organize everybody into one union. We all recognize there is a crisis in nursing. Many of us are burned out and are leaving the profession.”

Union nurses are raising the exhausting overtime work as a bargaining issue, Lobada said. But ultimately national legislation is needed to provide relief. “That’s why we went to Capitol Hill. There is no legislation pending that provides limits on overtime and mandated staffing nurse-patient ratios. We visited Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Sen. Dick Durbin. Both of them committed to help us. First, we have to stop the cutbacks in Medicaid.”

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com