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7,000 New York Nurses Go on Strike, Decrying “Unimaginable” Working Conditions

Workers say that understaffing and patient safety issues have forced them to go on strike.

Nurses of the New York State Nurses Association attend a press conference on January 13, 2022, in New York City.

Over 7,000 nurses across two hospitals in New York City went on strike early Monday morning after contract negotiations broke down over the hospitals’ refusal to meet nurses’ staffing demands.

Nurses at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx and Mount Sinai in Manhattan walked out at 6 am, saying they are forced to work long hours with huge workloads that leave them burnt out, which could potentially put patients in danger.

The workers “have been put in the unfortunate position of having no other choice than to strike,” said Mario Cilento, president of the New York AFL-CIO, of which the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) is an affiliate.

Now, nurses are facing “short staffing that has reached critical levels and could compromise their ability to provide the best quality care to their patients,” Cilento continued. “[The hospitals’] treatment of these nurses is proof that all their words of adulation for their healthcare heroes during the pandemic were hollow.”

Management has offered raises of 19 percent over the next three years, as workers have been fighting for raises to meet high inflation rates.

Staffing, however, is the highest priority, workers and the union say. Workers say that they’re often forced to work through breaks and don’t have time for meals, while there are times when one nurse in the emergency department could be responsible for up to 20 patients, according to NYSNA President Nancy Hagans — far higher than the commonly accepted ratio of one nurse to three patients. Hagans says that Montefiore has 760 vacancies.

“I don’t feel like I’m doing a service to my patients,” Montefiore emergency room nurse Judy Gonzalez told CNN. “I have patients who grab my shirt, and I can’t help them because I have to do something else.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has called for binding arbitration to stop the workers from striking. Arbitration agreements, however, are often skewed toward employers and strip unions and workers of power; as such, while the hospitals supported Hochul’s call, the union rejected it.

“Gov. Hochul should listen to frontline COVID nurse heroes and respect our federally-protected labor and collective bargaining rights,” the NYSNA said in a statement. “Nurses don’t want to strike. Bosses have pushed us to strike by refusing to seriously consider our proposals to address the desperate crisis of unsafe staffing that harms our patients.”

The nurses’ strike kicks off what will likely be an active year in the labor movement after 2022 saw an escalation of unionization and strike activity, including numerous nursing strikes.

One of last year’s largest strikes was held by nurses in Minnesota in September, when 15,000 nurses walked off the job to protest safety, salary and staffing shortfalls. The nurses voted again to ratify a strike three months later over the same issues, though that strike was averted when nurses voted to ratify a new contract that the union said would prevent reductions in staffing.

Amid the pandemic, health care workers have been under increasing stress and have quit their jobs in record numbers. This has led to increased labor activity; out of the 20 strikes recorded by the Department of Labor — which only records strikes larger than 1,000 workers — last year, four of them were nurses’ strikes. In 2021, meanwhile, Cornell University researchers found health care and social assistance workers made up over half of all workers involved in work stoppages in 2021.

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