AFT nurses and health professionals: Safer, stronger, together

For the first time since 2019, the AFT’s nurses and health professionals gathered in person for the professional issues conference in Chicago. The two-day meeting, held Nov. 12-13, was an opportunity for the union’s healthcare members to interact while learning new strategies to build their power and successfully address issues they face daily. More than 100 nurses, providers and members from professional and technical healthcare units were in attendance.

Healthcare PIC conference group

“We meet in an incredibly challenging time, but we are up to the challenge,” said John Brady, co-chair of the AFT’s RN program and policy council, during the conference’s opening session. Brady told attendees that this year’s conference centered on engaging members in defending their right to safe workplaces and protecting care for patients and communities “in the face of radical changes to our professions.”

“I’m in awe of what you do,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, in reference to the hardships many health professionals went through at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “You got us through a disease that we had no idea what it was or how to deal with it, and part of what the union must do is not let people forget about what you did, who you are and what that represents.”

But that’s only part of the work that must be done to fix a dysfunctional healthcare system, said Weingarten. She said the more important part of the members’ work is how they will fix the system. “That’s why we are here. The people who are here now have an important job: Our membership doesn’t want us to study the problem, our membership wants us to solve the problem, and that will take all of us.”

Weingarten talked about a new report released in November 2022 by the AFT’s healthcare staffing shortage task force that presents solutions to deal with a system that continuously puts profits over patients, as well as strategies to create leverage for workers to achieve changes in their facilities.

In addition, nurses and health professionals “have to tell the narrative about what is happening in hospitals,” she added. “We have to talk about it without getting deflated because we’re not going to solve it unless others believe it’s their problem too. We have to figure out how to make it a problem everyone wants to solve.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, one of the most vocal champions of nurse staffing in Congress, stopped by the general session on Nov. 12 to talk about the Nurse Staffing Standards for Hospital Patient Safety and Quality Care Act. Schakowsky has introduced the measure in every session of Congress since 2004, when she was elected to office.

“When I say it’s about time we do something about this, I really mean it. We need to get it done,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve talked to many nurses who tell me about the fatigue and anxiety around staffing. We know that there are so many benefits to safe staffing,” she said, encouraging attendees to lobby their legislators back home to support the bill. “Nurses are the most trusted in healthcare because you are at the bedside. Let’s make it better, let’s get these ratios so you can do your job and you can help people thrive.”

Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois addressed participants during the closing session on Nov. 13 about what inspired her to become a nurse and then run for Congress. Underwood is the first person of color, woman and millennial elected to represent her district. When she was sworn into office in 2019, she became the youngest Black woman to ever serve in Congress. She has made access to high-quality, affordable healthcare one of her signature issues.

“It’s no secret the challenges that we face in Congress in terms of moving legislation, so when I think about staffing and nursing issues more broadly, I have a very clear problem-solving approach,” said Underwood. She focuses on getting more resources into programs that work. Underwood encouraged attendees to share their stories to ensure those necessary resources are available. “We need to hear your stories. My colleagues need to hear from you, … specifically about how resources impact your practices, your workplace and your ability to care for your patients and communities.”

The conference also featured panel discussions with frontline workers and healthcare experts on workplace challenges in the post-COVID era, healthcare corporatization and the criminalization of healthcare workers. Attendees also had the opportunity to participate in workshops on topics ranging from understanding hospital finances to bargaining for the common good.

[Adrienne Coles]