Lately here in British Columbia, we have been in some major labour strife between the government and the public sector unions, most recently the hospital employees union. (HEU) A couple of weeks ago there was a strike that escalated and then ended with legislation that was perceived as illegal by some union workers who stayed out on strike, gaining support from other unions and nearly precipitating a general strike in the province.
I was talking last night with a friend of mine, an emergency room nurse who is, by all accounts, left leaning, but who doesn’t like strikes in general in the health care system because they do end up hurting patients and leading to blocked thinking on both sides, entrenched positions and general bad will all round. She does acknowledge however that our health care system is under brutal attack from our current government and radical action needs to be undertaken.
I agree with her. I am most interested by how these kinds of civil actions evolve and change. With crises like this, there is often a flash point, where one side takes on the other at the level of engagement that it perceives of the other. For example, anti-globalization protesters have over recent years engaged in violent protests which mirrors the violence they perceive to be coming from pro-globalization corporations and governments. This is always a first stage response to a crises in civil society. What comes next is always interesting to me, because after the bluster, there is always a chance to transcend the current reality, find some common ground and move on, with both sides changed. It doesn’t always happen this way, and sometimes the cycle of reaction continues for a long time before any progress is made.
But last night, talking to my friend, we wondered if there could be a better way. And we started thinking about the best way for the HEU to make their point, claim high ground AND not hurt the people in care that suffer during strikes.
We decided that what was really at stake was CARE. The HEU was protesting the government’s privatization of their jobs, complaining that it would result in a lack of care in a system that is already perceived as underresourced and unable to treat [patients humanely. In many ways, nurses are the last bastions of care in a whole area of civil society that was founded on care.
So we started wondering what nurses could do to make their point, and we came up with a radical idea that brought to mind Vaclav Havel’s politics of living in truth.
What if all the nurses went to work instead of striking? What if every patient had three nurses looking after them instead of just essential service levels of “care.” If the issue is about care, what better way to demonstrate that then to show the world what a fully functioning system would look like? Instead of marching outside for a pittance of strike pay, take a week of protest and show up for work and simply take care of the patients in the system. The nurses could even set up large tents outside the hospitals, reminiscent of a disaster scene, as if a large earthquake had hit and everyone’s hands were needed to care for the casualties. That would send that message that the health care crises is approaching disaster proportions and that it’s all about care and THIS is what care looks like.
It would get really juicy if the employer started preventing nurses from coming into the hospital to work. The government wouldn’t stand a chance against this expression of the truth. To be put in a situation where they were preventing caring professionals from caring for people would be untenable.
The government is privatizing jobs, so having nurses OUT of their workplace is exactly the image that the government wants to see. Yelling, angry protesters don’t send the message that these people are actually caring professionals, and that level of anger plays into the government’s hands as well.
But actually ignoring the government’s plans, recognizing the real need which is that people are not receiving a the care they need, and going to work without the government’s sanction…THAT would be powerful.