Friday, November 19, 2010


On November 14, 2002, about half of the nurses at Northern Michigan Hospital in Petoskey, Michigan walked out on strike.

They were represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

A teamster, you may know, is a fellow who drives a team of horses. Teamsters were the forerunners of truck drivers. The folks who brought the food to market and moved all sorts of other things around.

Jimmy Hoffa was the hero of the Teamsters union. A legendary fighter for the working man, tough, ruthless, ambitious. He cozied up with the mob. Did time in jail. Then one day he had lunch at Machus Red Fox in Oakland County and disappeared.

Hoffa’s son, Jim Jr. is a lawyer. He became President of the Teamsters in 1998.

That was about the time the International Brotherhood of Teamsters began to expand. After all they really weren’t driving teams of horses anyway, so why limit the membership to truck drivers?

Unhappily, they brought a confrontational representation strategy to the table. It didn’t look good on the descendants of Florence Nightengale.

Northern Michigan Hospital hired replacements for the striking nurses. About half of those who had gone on strike left the union and went back to work.

But a die-hard core of protesters hung on. Their picket lines in front of the hospital became a tradition in the little northern town. By 2004 they were featuring the claim that theirs was the longest nurse’s strike in history.

By 2006, the hospital was declaring that the strike was over. The union had given up its efforts to retain certification as the official bargaining agent for the nurses.

I have been a patient at Northern Michigan Hospital. It’s a wonderful place, full of caring, dedicated people. Just what a hospital is supposed to be.

I see in the paper that a strike has just been averted at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing. Good news.

Our daughter-in-law, Catherine, is a supervisory nurse there. She was frantic about the possibility of a strike which would have required her to cross picket lines manned by her friends and coworkers.

Got me to thinking.

The idea of a strike is to generate public support for the labor side of the bargaining table. That’s why they carry signs and walk up and down the sidewalk.

Going on strike means forfeiting wages. It also means depriving the employer, and more critically, the employer’s clients or customers of their services.

That’s the part I find very hard to understand.

Nurses are supposed to care about their patients. The vast majority of them do. They really, really care. That’s why they became nurses. That’s why they empty bedpans. Cheerfully.

A nurse’s strike sounds like an oxymoron. Nurses nurse. That’s what they do. How can a nurse who doesn’t nurse be a nurse?

But nurses are also employees. They are working folks who do what they do, not only because they love what they do, not only because they are dedicated to taking care of sick people, but also as a way to earn a living and to provide for themselves and their families.

So what are they to do when they are at odds with their employers over the conditions and terms of their employment?

That’s particularly sticky since for the most part their employers are non profit, charitable corporations, governed by unpaid Boards of Directors, and supported by public generosity or the local taxpayers.

So a nurses strike is a war between the good guys and the good guys.

What are we patients and potential patients and patient’s families supposed to think?

It strikes me that there must be a better way. A tertium quid as we lawyers might say. A third thing. Something outside of the box.

How about this?

Instead of punishing the patients by withholding their services, why don’t the nurses donate their earnings back to the hospital?

Instead of walking up and down the sidewalk in the dead of winter carrying homemade signs, why not invite the media into the hospital cafeteria to film the nurses tearing up their paychecks?

A little hard for the hospital administrators to plead poverty in the face of nurses foregoing their compensation.

I’m just one guy, but if I read in the paper or saw on the nightly news that nurses were tearing up their paychecks to protest their working conditions, I would be tempted to dig pretty deep and throw something into the pot myself.

Bizarre? Maybe.

But I’ll wager it would have been more effective than the Teamsters inspired confrontational strategy that ruined so many lives and careers in Petoskey.

1 comment:

  1. Puppa,

    I agree, for the most part, who exercise confrontational strategies are not necessary and are not useful especially in professions like nursing or teaching.

    But the argument you make beginning by asserting that nurses who don't nurse can't be nurses, doesn't seem to be exclusive to nurses. In fact it could be applied to any profession. Miners who don't mine aren't miners. Auto-workers who don't work on autos aren't autoworkers. Workers who strike aren't workers.

    That's more of a minor point, as I think more of the argument rests on the non-profit nature of nurse's employers. That is, refusing to work for insufficient wages doesn't make sense when your employer isn't trying to make money of your work (thus there is no reason to give workers wages which are lower than they deserve in order to make more money).

    Basically it doesn't make sense to strike against someone who isn't trying to unfairly exploit your services to make more money. The notion of striking a non-profit employer is therefore illogical.

    Good post.