by M. Germon
April 27 2022: Union nurses and supporters picket for first contract at Maine Med. (National Nurses United)
After eight long months of negotiations, the nurses at Maine Medical Center are turning up the heat. Hundreds of people showed up in solidarity to an informational picket organized by the Maine Med nurses’ union on April 27th, weathering the cold and rain to fight for a good first contract. In many ways, the stories shared at the picket sounded all too familiar: a crisis in healthcare, a crisis of healthcare. Understaffing, underfunding, high profits, and unaffordability all contribute to the escalating sense of emergency that nurses and patients alike are facing in a for-profit healthcare system.
Frustrated beyond belief and pushed to their limits, Maine Med nurses are demanding safe patient ratios, protections for workers, adequate breaks, improved benefits and wages, and more. These nurses are working overtime with little support and rest, while hospital management expresses absolutely no desire to work toward improving staff retention.
On top of that, multiple emergency room nurses report being attacked by their patients, to which management has offered no concrete solutions. Healthcare worker safety is a perpetual emergency: resources are consistently being cut from psych units, there are few beds due to the strain of the pandemic and opioid crisis, staffing is low, and there are few treatment program options outside of the hospital. The housing crisis at large is leaving many homeless and in poverty, which increases people’s overall risk for conditions like substance abuse. Staff retention is low due to lack of safety and improper allocation of resources by management.
Without universal health care, patients can’t afford adequate care and are forced to turn to emergency rooms for crisis help. Even with the best efforts of nurses and doctors, this kind of care can only be a temporary band-aid and is incapable of resolving the conditions that cause or reinforce mental health conditions, substance abuse, and other trauma and abuse. Combined, these factors put nurses in danger at work and leave patients in crisis. It’s dire examples like these that emphasize the urgent need for universal healthcare.
Burnout and exhaustion are dangerous in any workplace, but many nurses worry about how these conditions are affecting their patients’ care. Members of ISG in Maine spoke to nurses at the picket who expressed that they’re not only fighting for workplace protections, but also for those they care for, who would directly benefit from safer healthcare facilities.
The informational picket itself comes nearly four months after a 50-person protest outside of the same Bramhall Street location. Back in January, unionized nurses rallied, advocating for better working conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to strain hospitals worldwide. After silence from management, these Maine Med nurses decided it was high time to take things a step further with the call for the April picket.
Union members from across professions showed up to the picket in solidarity: other medical professionals, teachers, construction workers, electrical workers, service workers, and more. Students, unorganized workers, families, and our own Maine members were also in attendance. Together, hundreds of working people shouted loud and clear: “Portland is a union town!”
Healthcare Workers Rise Up Nationwide
The picket in Portland arrives at a time when union activity is on the rise in the U.S. More and more workers are bearing witness to or are directly affected by injustice in the workplace, and are coming to the conclusion they hold the power; when workers organize effectively, we can make demands.
It’s an exciting trend, but that’s only the first step—to ensure a good contract, workers will require real solidarity from labor and community groups. Real solidarity means refusing to cross picket lines when workers are in struggle, mobilizing for mass rallies and pickets, and organizing joint workplace actions that spread the struggle across workplaces and even industries.
Nurses across the country have walked out, staged pickets, and gone on strike to fight corporate greed and its effects on health care and patient well-being. Maine Med nurses on the line echoed the same concerns and demands as the St. Vincent nurses in Massachusetts, who struck for 300 days last year to win safe staffing and better contracts. Throughout the pandemic, and even before, healthcare workers faced unsafe working conditions like understaffing, not enough PPE, and excessive work hours. The St. Vincent nurses won their fight, and ISG is proud to have stood alongside them on the picket line throughout the entire strike. We have done it before, and we will do it again!
Of course, the bosses will take every opportunity to slow this process. For example, it has been almost exactly a year since the registered nurses at Maine Med voted to join MSNA, and they have yet to see a contract from management.
Union federations like the National Nurses United (NNU) should help unify and strengthen nurses’ actions in support of better working conditions and patient care. Even unions not associated with larger federations and unions in other industries should unite with the Maine Med nurses and other healthcare workers in struggle, as the issues at individual facilities are symptoms of the larger crisis in healthcare and impact all healthcare workers and patients.
The Independent Socialist Group stands in solidarity with the Maine Medical Center Nurses and supports their demands for a good contract. We will be standing alongside the nurses at any future pickets and workplace actions. To win the struggle, union nurses at Maine Med, local unions, and community groups should help build support among workers at Maine Med and in the community for job actions, protests, pickets, and potentially strikes to put pressure on the company and to help nurses and patients win the demands they so desperately need and deserve!