With the nurses on the road to Madison

Helen Redmond, a social worker in Chicago, describes the “festival of fighters” she encountered on a trip to Madison, Wis., with a delegation from National Nurses United.

Marching to defend workers' rights and benefits in Madison

THE MOOD on the bus was jubilant and serious. National Nurses United (NNU) organized a group of union members to go to Wisconsin to support state workers in Madison fighting Governor Scott Walker’s assault on their right to collective bargaining, their health care and their pensions.

The feeling of solidarity was palpable. The slogan on one T-shirt connected all the issues for the nurses: Union Rights, Human Rights, Patient Rights.

Leslie Curtis, an organizer for NNU, set the tone: “What’s happening in Wisconsin is a fight for all of us.” She held up some of the picket signs we’d be carrying. The one that got the biggest cheer proclaimed, “Don’t Blame Workers for the Crisis, It’s Wall Street Greed.” Then she reminded us when the bus got back to Chicago to “tip our union brother,” our bus driver.

As the bus hit the road, a nurse wearing a Sicko T-shirt walked up the aisle with a box of Joe in one hand and a bag of dairy creamers and paper cups in the other. Following her was another nurse with a box of Einstein bagels and cream cheese. We were all well fed and caffeinated by the time we rolled into Madison two hours later.

On the bus, the nurses had no shortage of health care horror stories. RNs from the University of Chicago Medical Center–which is located on the South Side, a few miles from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, talked about the difficult and at times dangerous conditions in the hospital inpatient units and in the emergency room.

Nurse Reasheal Lehmann works in the ER and discussed the overcrowding and long waits–sometimes over 13 hours. That’s because another South Side facility, Provident Hospital of Cook County, just closed its ER to ambulance runs. Now patients are diverted to U of C, which expects eight to 10 more ambulances a day, a 50 percent increase. Since 1986, six South Side hospitals have closed, putting enormous stress on the few health care institutions left to serve low-income and uninsured patients.

Reasheal said some patients that need to be admitted wait in hallways for more than 24 hours until a bed is available. Hospital management has a system called “bed geography” but the nurses report the system doesn’t work. The anger and frustration in the ER leads patients to walk out without being treated.

Among the ER patients who suffer the most, according to Reasheal, are those in sickle cell pain crisis. She said, “Sickle cell is still terrible on the South Side,” and added, “By the time a patient in a pain crisis is seen, they need IV morphine–that’s how bad the pain is.” Another nurse described a flooded ER with water contaminated with human feces. Several rooms had to close. After the blizzard that hit Chicago a few weeks ago, the ER was deluged with dialysis patients who missed dialysis treatment. Most were so sick they had to be admitted to the hospital for stabilization.

The bus burst into laughter when Reasheal called out the tagline that advertises the University of Chicago Medical Center: “At the Forefront of Medicine.”

When asked about the solution to the health care crisis, Mona Cetner, an RN on the inpatient general medicine unit at U of C, said without hesitation, “Single-payer. Health care is a right, not a privilege. Our health care is shameful. We should hang our heads in shame. Medicine shouldn’t be for profit. It’s corporate greed.”

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IN MADISON, the minute we disembarked from the bus, placards in hand, union members came over and thanked the nurses for coming. We marched with them one block to the Capitol building.

Across the street were two semi-trailers with the word Teamsters emblazoned on it and unionists clogged the sidewalk. When they saw the nurses, they started to chant: “Union, Power, Union, Power.” Over and over, hundreds chanted the words, and then the order flipped: “Power, Union, Power, Union.”

We entered the Capitol to the sound of drums and chanting in the near distance. As we marched down a hall lined with workers, smiles all around, people shook the nurses’ hands like they were celebrities, thanked them profusely for supporting their struggle and added, “Thank you for taking care of us.”

Once in the rotunda, the crowd erupted as the nurses, signs held high, marched in and stood behind the drummers in a semi-circle. Reasheal addressed the crowd and said, “Health care is a human right. We are here from Chicago to support your struggle.” A massive cheer went up. There were dozens of signs in the crowd that spoke to the health care crisis including one that asserted, “Mental health care is a human right.”

Then the firefighters marched into the crowd and through the rotunda in full gear, the piercing red and white lights of their battered, black helmets turned on. They high-fived the nurses. The next group of workers was a huge contingent of sheet metal workers. Who knew there were so many sheetmetal workers and what do they do?

Jimmy Hoffa Jr. of the Teamsters showed up, addressed the crowd and invoked the labor slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” After he left, the woman chairing the ongoing mass meeting in the rotunda held up two fingers that signified for the chanting to stop and for people to listen.

Everyone complied. She stood on a plastic milk crate, took the microphone and read out solidarity greetings from Egypt. When she finished the room exploded into whooping and clapping. A new chant began, “We are one, we are one,” and then morphed into, “One, One, One,” over and over again.

But the chant heard consistently throughout the day was “This is what democracy looks like.” And it did–masses of workers from all parts of the state occupying the building where the decisions that affect their lives are made, and demanding to be heard. Solidarity came from every direction and from some unexpected ones: doctors. They wrote sick notes to excuse Capitol protesters from work. Dr. Lou Sanner, a family medicine physician, confessed he wrote hundreds of sick notes for protesters because they were suffering from stress.

The level of day-to-day organization in the Capitol was seamless, the floor spotless. There was a crew that cleaned up constantly. The “people’s pizza,” pepperoni or cheese, was given away. People with platters of vegetables and strawberries, and crates of apples circulated throughout the crowd. Stacks of bottled water were available. An elderly woman offered Girl Scout mint chocolates to the crowd.

A nurse’s station was located on the first floor, and on the second, there was a table with first aid supplies. Next to it was a table piled high with food: containers of hummus, baby carrots, slices of famous Wisconsin cheeses, crackers and bread. Around the corner was a child care area and children drew on large sheets of paper spread out on the floor. In the women’s bathroom, there were boxes of tampons and pads, free for the taking.

Around 2 p.m., it was announced that the legislators were going into session. The drummers and hundreds of protesters dashed up the stairs, but were blocked by police a few feet from the entrance to the chamber. The four drummers started drumming furiously. A trumpet player joined them. The sound was so thunderous that the air vibrated. A chant of, “Go, Go, Go” started.

The words and sounds ricocheted off the stone walls and floors, amplifying the effect to deafening levels. Facebook and Twitter are ways to organize and communicate, but they can’t substitute for the power of booming drums and hundreds of people packed together protesting, voices chanting political slogans. It was a festival of fighters.

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THERE WERE many signs in Madison stating, “It’s not about the money.” But it is about the money. The governor clearly sees it that way. So should labor.

The mainstream media, labor leaders and politicians repeat ad nauseam that state workers “aren’t in it for the money.” Then what are workers “in it for?” For fun, not to pay the bills? The billionaire Koch brothers are in it for the money. Slashing benefits takes money out of workers’ paychecks, and soaring health care costs is the main reason. Walker is more than doubling workers’ contributions toward helath care to a whopping 12.6 percent.

Ann Niemeier, a retired teacher who’d been at the Capitol for over a week, explained, “The poorest workers will be hit the hardest–the nursing home workers and day care workers. They won’t be able to afford the increase. We’ve taken too many concessions. The fight with the governor should be about the benefits, too, not just the right to collective bargaining.”

Over the last decade, family health insurance premiums for Wisconsin workers rose 4.6 times faster than their median earnings. Another reason premiums have increased is because those with insurance pay a “hidden health tax”–$1,017 yearly on average, according to the estimates of researchers–in money that goes to pay for the care hospitals provide to the uninsured.

Wisconsin has between 300,000 and 500,000 uninsured, and 110,000 are children. Walker’s budget also proposes changes in Medicaid and BadgerCare that would eliminate thousands from eligibility from both programs.

The National Nurses United support a strategy of “No Concessions.” Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro threw down the gauntlet when she wrote a few days ago, “There can be no more concessions, period.”

The NNU is one of the main supporters of a single-payer, national health care system. A single-payer system abolishes employment-based health coverage and is the only way to get bargaining for health care out of every union contract and to make health care a human right for all.


  1. Rob on March 4, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Absolutely Blame Wall Street! Stand up to the unregulated greed of our country’s corporate and profit-driven hospital chains and pharmaceutical giants. All working people – nurses, teachers, bus drivers, hotel workers – deserve a working wage, healthcare and a decent pension. Healthcare and mental health is a fundamental right, a universal right, a human right.