An Open Letter to Nurses on Playing Cards

It’s time to turn our anger into action. Here’s how.

Dear fellow nurses,

Are you pissed? Good, you should be.

When Washington State Senator Maureen Walsh suggested that nurses don’t need work breaks because we’re probably playing cards all day, she revealed exactly how corporate hospital executives, and the politicians who do their bidding, really view nurses: just a bothersome line item for expendable labor in their financial quest to squeeze every dollar of profit out of the health care system.

The disrespect they showed toward nurses was shocking, but I and other nurses are sadly not surprised. It’s the same line we’ve always heard from management every time we advocate for ourselves and our patients, whether it be for safe staffing ratios or measures to prevent workplace violence.

Maybe you were one of the nurses who heard the insult after getting off a 12-hour shift, so exhausted you were not sure you could drive home. The hospital had decided that lift teams were an extravagance, that you could be floated to any which unit, and that you should just “do your best” with short staffing, even when it potentially means death, and your license and conscience is on the line.

Maybe you went home after an agitated patient bit you, or spat on you, or a family threatened to shoot you.

Maybe it was a not-so-good day and you heard those stinging words even as you comforted the family and held the hands of a patient who should not be dying so young.

No wonder Walsh’s comments touched a nerve with hundreds of thousands of nurses across this country and tapped into our collective rage at the unfair and unsafe working conditions we face every time we walk into our facilities. The denial of our hard-earned break time is just the tip of the iceberg.

As a registered nurse for 35 years, I know from firsthand experience that no one in the hospital industry will simply give nurses the respect that we deserve out of the kindness of their hearts. Let’s face it: Our employers value the facility’s bottom line more than the well-being of nurses and the patients we care for.

They will never give us respect; we must grow powerful enough to take it.

The best way I have seen for nurses to flex their power on the job and in their profession is through organizing collectively. Only through strength in numbers and acting together have nurses won respect at the workplace. When one person complains to the manager about unsafe staffing, she gets ignored — or her next vacation request denied. When the entire unit marches into the director of nursing’s office for more nurses, guess what? The unit gets more nurses.

The ultimate expression of workers — of nurses — acting collectively is a labor union. Regardless of how you feel about unions, allow me to tell you a little about mine. I am so, so proud that the RN union I lead, National Nurses United, not only helps nurses unionize and win contracts that spell out the rules, conditions, and compensation we need to do our difficult jobs right, but that we are also at the forefront of building a nurses movement to command the respect our profession deserves and to create the kind of world we nurses went into nursing to achieve.

My union fights for staffing ratios, so that you have a safe maximum patient assignment and don’t panic about whether someone is going to die on your watch. My union fights for lift teams at hospitals, so that you don’t break your back and end up as the patient. My union fights for rules to force hospitals to make workplace violence prevention plans, so that you don’t get beaten up or shot — another health care worker injury statistic. My union fights for Medicare for All, so that health care in this country is provided as a human right and not dependent on the size of your bank account.

At the end of the day, for us nurses, it’s all about helping our patients.

I know you’re angry. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

So don’t just get mad. Get a union. Join us in the nurses movement today.