Nurses from 25 countries unite to demand “People and the planet over profits!”

Bonnie Castillo
Sep 20 · 10 min read
Check out California Nurses Association flickr for tons of Global Nurses Solidarity Assembly photos.

Save one life, you’re a hero. Save a hundred lives, you’re a nurse. Gather together six continents’ worth of union nurse leaders — and you’re a force of healing that can change the world! I was profoundly moved last week to see this truth embodied in a spark lit between a nurse leader from America’s East Coast and a nurse leader from Asia.

“What would you say if I told you that Johns Hopkins — this prestigious, famous, illustrious hospital that made $85.4 million dollars last year — is so cheap, that it won’t even buy its nurses gloves that don’t rip?”

Shaneisha McMillan, a registered nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, punctuated her question by waving a tattered glove in the air. She was addressing more than 1,500 nurse union leaders and allies from 25 countries at the Global Nurses Solidarity Assembly (GNSA), held in San Francisco Sept. 12–15. Her story of poor working conditions, and the Hopkins’ nurses fight to form a union with National Nurses United (NNU), ignited the crowd.

Why are global nurses united? Because our patients and our colleagues are all fighting the same fight.

“It was shocking to learn the real face of Johns Hopkins Hospital, because we always thought it was the number one hospital around the globe,” said Sun Ja Na, RN, president of the Korean Health and Medical Workers union (KHMU). “But then we realized it was number one in terms of oppression and the need for change. We could relate because in Korea, the largest hospital is Samsung, and it does not have a union.”

With inspiration from McMillan’s story, Na said she realized, “We need to make more effort to unionize Samsung hospital!”

This fire kindled between the Hopkins nurses and the South Korean nurses is just one of countless global connections and galvanizing moments that happened at the global assembly, filled with panel discussions, educational sessions, revolutionary art and theater, and an epic nurses’ march for health care justice that shut down the streets of San Francisco.

“We nurses have front row seats to the massive inequality and health care needs of our communities,” said California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA/NNOC) President Malinda Markowitz. “But you know what? Nurses are people who get things done and who don’t give up. I firmly believe that, collectively, we have the ability to change the world.”

The Global Nurses Solidarity Assembly was hosted by CNA/NNOC, an affiliate of National Nurses United. In 2013, NNU and its affiliates joined forces with union affiliates from 14 other nations to form Global Nurses United (GNU). Today, GNU encompasses union affiliates from 28 countries — 25 of which we were so proud to host at last week’s global assembly.

Of course, we also want to be clear, in our righteous anger, that union leaders from several countries tried to attend but were denied visas by the U.S. State Department, and our sister Zxyyann “Jane” Lu, president of the Taiwan Nurses Association, was detained by U.S. customs for 14 hours on her way to GNSA. (See below for more on this appalling infringement on our right to gather in solidarity for our patients.)

And in these increasingly trying times, make no mistake: Global solidarity between nurses is a powerful force for change! Here are some of the voices from the Global Nurses Solidarity Assembly, outlining all of the fights nurses and our allies are championing across the planet:

UNITING FOR NURSES’ RIGHTS

“In different countries, people have different struggles. I could say, however, the nurses’ issues are the same — the patient ratios, working conditions in facilities. So it’s very good to find out how the unions are developed in different countries, so we can exchange ideas and build up our solidarity.” — Rince Joseph, President, United Nurses Association of India

“The speakers have been phenomenal, learning about all the struggles the nurses around the world have faced and that we are not alone in our struggle, that we’ve got so many nurses wanting to fight and change health care. I’m learning things here that I’ll take back to my workplace and share with my fellow nurses. It makes me feel inspired to keep going and gives me strength to push forward.” — Karen Pels-Jimenez, RN, Saint Rose Sienna, Las Vegas

“The Global Nurses Solidarity Assembly was a great opportunity to verify what efforts and struggles nurses around the globe are making, to provide the best care and protect the rights of patients and nurses. In South Korea, we have rudimentary legislation of staffing ratios, but [after attending GNSA], we feel the need to refine that law.” — Sun Ja Na, President, Korean Health and Medical Workers Union

FIGHTING IN GLOBAL SOLIDARITY TO WIN MEDICARE FOR ALL

Nurses around the world say “Medicare for All now!”

“National Nurses United has been leading the grassroots movement for Medicare for All, and we stand in unbreakable solidarity with our international colleagues against ANY threat to privatize or cut health care in their countries. And let me tell you, no one fights harder than nurses for health care justice.” — Jean Ross, President, National Nurses United

“Know in the United States., you are not alone. Health care is a human right. Never give up, never surrender, because we are standing side by side with you!” — Linda Silas, President, Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions

“Here in the United States, the establishment are trying to stop you from getting Medicare For All. Your fight is our fight. We need to remember we are the many, and they are the few!” — Danielle Tiplady, U.K. National Health Service staff nurse and Royal College of Nursing activist

PROTECTING THE RIGHT TO ORGANIZE

“As labor activists, we are in a constant state of resistance because the Guatemalan government wants to eliminate the labor movement; they want to get rid of the trade unions especially our SNTSG Union which is the largest in the health sector. … We workers will continue to organize and fight every day against this oppressive system, a system that exists only to generate financial profits for a few, while causing pain and death for the majority of Guatemalans.” — Luis Antuilio Alpirez Guzman, Secretary General, Sindicato Nacional de los Trabajadores de Salud de Guatemala

“How can we improve unionization? In my country, the solution found is to bring those who are not yet workers into the movement so they could understand — work with students. Speaking to those who will be future workers is so important; it’s a stimulus for them.” — Shirley Morales, Vice President, National Federation of Nurses Brazil

L to R: Shaneisha McMillan, RN (Baltimore, MD); Lauren Buol, RN (Bismarck, ND); actress Laura Gomez; Tony Fitzpatrick, RN (Irish Nurses and Midwives Assoc.); Jocelyn Andamo, RN (Filipino Nurses United)

FIGHTING AUSTERITY, CUTS, PRIVATIZATION

“There’s a narrative that [the U.K.’s National Health Service] is failing because of migrants. But it’s actually under pressure because of public service budget cuts under a conservative government. Look around, politicians are trying to divide us. We need coordinated action; with all these people, we can do it!” — Rita Issa, U.K. doctor and activist

“Filipino nurses share important and critical concerns with nurses around the world — the increasingly repressive tendencies of our governments when we assert our legitimate and just demands, health care privatization, deregulation, and liberalization that jeopardize people’s health and general welfare.” — Joselyn Santos-Andamo, Secretary-General, Filipino Nurses United

ADVANCING GENDER JUSTICE

Nurses honored Liz Shuler (L), Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO with the “Global Solidarity” award. Liz is a powerful ally to RNs and workers everywhere!

“When teachers and nurses want to leave their professions, that is the breakdown of society. Society cannot live without this work! We should remember that these work spaces are sites of resistance.”
Tithi Bhattacharya, Professor of South Asian History, Director of Global Studies, Purdue University

“Feminism is a right. Half of our world’s inhabitants that do so much for our planet are women.” — Maria Concepcion Chavez, President Emeritus, Paraguayan Nurses Association

“Caretaking work has been devalued because it’s done by women, immigrants. To see this work and to uphold it, it’s what bargaining for the common good is about. It’s also what grassroots feminism is about. … Recognizing and valuing the work of women is good for society as a whole.” — Maria Poblette, Executive Director, Grassroots Policy Project

L to R: Tithi Bhattacharya (Purdue University), Maria Concepcion Chavez (Paraguayan Nurses Association), Shinobu Morita (Japan Federation of Medical Workers Unions)

CHAMPIONING CLIMATE JUSTICE

“When we talk about the green job, we are restricting that to the guy in a hard hat. … We also need to recognize care work is a climate solution. Taking care of each other is low carbon; you nurses are performing climate jobs.Naomi Klein, author and activist

“Climate change has impacted the entire world. It has changed how our seasons have been in Botswana. I think National Nurses United is playing a leading role [in addressing the climate crisis], and nurses around the world need to add their voice.” — Obonolo Rahube, President, Botswana Nurses Association

DEMANDING RACIAL JUSTICE AT THE BEDSIDE AND BEYOND

“We have been organized in how to think about people. Someone imagined a cage, imagined handcuffs. We get to imagine something radically different. I want to ask all of you to imagine a world where we aren’t relying on policing and incarceration. We get to decide that.” — Patrisse Cullors, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter and Chairperson of Reform L.A. Jails

“The truth is we need a new normal because the current normal is not working. The folks you interact with on a daily basis won’t hear it from an intellectual — they’ll be more receptive to you, the nurses. The more of you who tell the truth, who tell us that the systems we have in place aren’t sustainable, the further along we get.” — Charles McKinney, Chair of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of History, Rhodes College, Memphis, Tenn.

ADVANCING PATIENT AND NURSE RIGHTS BEYOND BORDERS

Nurses stand in global solidarity for the rights of patients forced into mass migration — and the rights of our colleagues from Guatemala, India, Sri Lanka, and Malawi, who were denied visas to attend GNSA by the U.S. State Department. We also demand justice for our sister Zxyann “Jane” Lu, Taiwan Nurses Association President, who was detained for 14 hours by U.S. customs on her way to GNSA. Nurses won’t be intimidated; officials can deny our visas, but never our solidarity.

“I’ve been all over the world, so I’m not scared. I know I’m not violating any laws. But other people have no resources. … I’ve gone through customs here in the U.S. maybe 30 times, because I’ve traveled so much for so many years. Always in this country, I’m treated like a criminal. Always.” — Zxyann “Jane” Lu, President of the Taiwan Nurses Association, who was held for 14 hours at San Francisco International Airport and asked to sign a document saying she wouldn’t return to the United States for a year. She refused.

L to R: Cathy Kennedy, RN,; Josue Orellana, National Assoc. Nurses & Healthcare Workers, Honduras; Fernando Garcia, Border Network for Human Rights

“In Honduras, we see how our fellow citizens migrate day after day to the U.S. Who can survive with one dollar a day? That’s why conditions are so precarious in Honduras. There are no health services, no basic services to access, and that really reduces our level of living. Hondurans are dying. … Here, we are nurses, raising our voices, advocating for our people.” — Josue Orellana, President of the National Association of Nurses and Healthcare Workers of Honduras

“It was appalling to hear about the conditions of families kept by ICE and U.S. Border Patrol. They were not able to brush their teeth, have clean combs, or shower. Their medications were taken away. The nurses of RNRN and NNU have been lifting our voices to highlight these inhumane conditions. Registered nurses need to do this around every corner of the world.” — CNA/NNOC Secretary Cathy Kennedy, who volunteered at a Tucson, Ariz. shelter for migrant families with NNU’s disaster relief program, the Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN)

FUSING ART WITH SOCIAL JUSTICE

GNSA featured an art exhibit entitled “Recognition,” exemplifying the ways in which art can inspire social change — and a performance of “The People Speak,” featuring the stories of activists, organizers, and labor leaders who changed the course of history.

“[Nurses] are the people taking care of us when we are sick, the people who have a vocation that deserves our respect — and they are not getting it. So as a citizen of the world, and also as an artist, I’m very concerned about this, and I’m here in support!” — Laura Gomez, actress and activist, who performed with “The People Speak” and also narrated GNSA’s “Nurses Rising” presentation

“All my graphic design work and my children’s books are about social justice, and this gathering of nurses from around the world is where it’s at! I’ve seen a lot of the NNU and CNA nurses on the picket lines and at activist events. I’m from the Bay Area, and whenever there’s an action, they’re always on the forefront. You think of all these fights as local … it feels very isolated sometimes. But when you see this kind of solidarity across the world, it takes it to a whole new level.” — Innosanto Nagara, graphic artist, illustrator, children’s book author

Artist Melanie Cervantes signs a special poster she made for GNSA.

Thank you to the global nurse union leaders and allies who traveled such great distances to attend GNSA, the international leaders who tried to come but were denied visas, and all the nurses around the world who make up this global movement — and who deserve great honor and respect for protecting patients everywhere. Want to stand with union nurses, as we fight collectively for a better world? To organize with National Nurses United, click here, and to join NNU as an at-large member, click here. You can also join the nurse-led fight to win Medicare For All here!

Bonnie Castillo

Written by

Union Nurse Leader & Medicare For All Activist. Executive Director of @NationalNurses, the Largest U.S. Organization of Registered Nurses.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade