John Buell

Nurses and the Politics of ‘Tough Times’

Just as Republican governors blame working class woes and economic stagnation on greedy public sector unions, hospital administrations and their “non profit” boards portray nurses as a major economic drag not only on the general population but other health sector workers as well.

Their critics charge that nurses had nerve seeking any kind of raise in an era where workers of all sorts had to pay more for health care.

Others suggested that “the times we live in” required sacrifices from nurses, whose circa 60,000 a year made them part of the elite of the US workforce. Other union critics argued that management has an absolute right to determine staffing levels and that it must have the flexibility to deal with changing patient populations and medical technologies.

That giving front line workers a voice in many “management” areas has often enhanced corporate performance, an experience more common in Europe, hardly seems to enter many critics’ minds. Sadly many workers don’t even contemplate the possibility that the times may at least in part be what we make of them.

Social change is complex, unpredictable, often shaped by mutually amplifying hopes or anger.

Generous pensions in both the pubic and private sectors were the product of social justice crusades intensified by overlapping and reinforcing labor ideologies and religious sentiments.

Today’s logic often reverses this course by striving to amplify anger toward the public sector with hostility to labor organization in the health delivery field. Since many private sector workers are losing their pensions, public sector workers should too.

It is hard to imagine any social reform movement not spurring and being spurred by resentments of forms of exploitation. Such energies lead to a push for policies that will redress these inbalances.

But the emphasis on seeing one’s opponents punished and the implicit or explicit hostility and demonization of them often reflect a hatred of the human condition as these subjects understand it.

Many fundamentalists confess a God who judges and awards fame and prosperity based on His judgments. (See William Connolly’s discussion of these points in A World of Becoming.) Others profess a secular faith that the market will achieve the same result. Some, however, may on another level question His—or the market’s— judgment and even resent the poverty in which they live.

Or at times they harbor inner doubts hard to express even to oneself. Unlikely to take resentment out on the God or basic values they profess, rage can be directed at those who express such doubts publicly or promote a world view and politics that rattles one’s self-confidence in his own beliefs. Social activists who deny God’s or the “free” market’s role in poverty and demand social remediation are seen as not only wrong headed but dangerous and deserving of punishment.

Of course not all indulge such hostility, and political consciousness is a mobile and fluctuating phenomenon that shapes and is shaped by our complex world. Surprises are always possible. Some working class hostility to nurses unions may be addressed in part by further education on just who cost workers their pensions and their disappearing prosperity.

Social policies that will lift economic burdens for all can relieve some of the pressures that foster deep divisions and ressentiment.

Many nurses unions themselves have played a positive role in this process by strong advocacy of a Medicare for all health care system, one far more inclusive and efficient than Obama’s reforms.

But policy wonk arguments will only go so far. Even to get to these will require efforts to build some cooperation in day to day life among those who are radically different. My own faith is that all but the most hardened can be open to dialogue.

Much however, depends on our approaching encounters in open, nonjudgmental ways. Helping even those with whom we profoundly disagree solve day to day problems, collaborating where we can, making sure we ourselves don’t judge merely by the ideology or politics. In the process some do acknowledge gaps in their own views and the gains and pleasures of respectful debate and even exposure to new lifestyles. Some of these may indeed even express and encourage creative potentials we have not recognized.

From my own experience, I imagine or hope that for some a hospital stay and the kind of caring experience nurses from many backgrounds display in very adverse circumstances would be not only life saving but life changing.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2011

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