Nurses striking: is it effective?

As many of you have likely heard, the nurses employed by Sutter Health in Northern California staged a strike on Thursday September 22, 2011 in protest over an increase in benefits costs and decreases to sick and vacation leave. of

While the non-profit Sutter Health has real profits in the near billion dollar range, we are left wondering why it is the nurses’ benefits are being cut even as the heads of the organization walk home with millions of dollars of “bonuses” each year.

I think the nurses are in some respects justified in taking this stance and going on strike; they are working together to stand in solidarity (though up to 40% of the nurses at the various hospitals crossed the picket lines and reported to work). On the other hand, I feel that the strike does not create an atmosphere for discussion and dialogue that might be meaningful. This action in and of itself seems unlikely to create a path for communication between administrators, decision makers, and the nurses. The union itself also prevents much of this direct communication and may prevent the working nurses from communicating their concerns outside of the union’s presence.The strike does create some obstacles and safety concerns for patients, administrators, nurses crossing the strike line, and the replacement nurses.

I have thought a mass exodus of the nurses, or many immediate resignations, would be more effective, though highly unlikely to happen for obvious financial reasons. For each nurse who quit, Sutter would lose at least $60, 000 in training a new nurse to replace them. These expenses could add up very quickly if a good chunk of the nurses walked away from their positions. Sutter may have problems with hiring new nurses in relation to the higher costs of benefits, the reduction in vacation pay, and the elimination of paid sick leave. Paid sick leave can help to stop the spread of illnesses like the flu (have we already forgotten H1N1?), but perhaps I am digressing a bit here.

It would be interesting to poll the public and get their perception of striking nurses, professionalism, empowerment, and the image of nurses. From the current state of the media coverage, it is difficult to tell where the public stands on this.

We do know that the nurses have now been locked out until Tuesday, as at least two of the hospitals have a minimum contract of five days for their temporary staff contracts. These contracts are likely very expensive and in no way are saving Sutter any money, which was the reason given for changes in the benefits.

The issue of unions, strikes and walk-outs is prime for nursing researchers to continue to explore: what are the outcomes of strikes, do the nurses feel or experience a sense of empowerment through the process, what is the public’s perception of nurses’ unions and strikes, and so on.