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The Point: Solidarity: A love story


Dear Member,

The American media reflexively depicts unions that stand up for themselves as selfish or stupid. In James Baldwin’s words, any “relatively conscious” working person can see that nothing could be further from the truth.

You may have heard that a few weeks ago, a coalition of unions at Kaiser Permanente, a massive joint medical insurer and provider based in the Western US, stood up for themselves. 75,000 workers went on a three-day strike. Their primary demands will look familiar to you: better pay and better staffing. They returned to work as planned, and negotiations made progress. They won many of their demands.

This episode at KP—the largest healthcare strike in US history—feels personal to me. In addition to regularly using KP as an example in my management ethics class (they have some interesting participatory management practices; or, maybe they used to…) and having grown up in California where KP is ubiquitous, my partner is a registered nurse.

After undergrad, she spent the next 7 years supporting us as a critical care nurse. I’ve been lucky to have never seen the inside of an ICU, but I gather from her stories that it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that every hour inside those vital institutions is harrowing. This fact was made stark during the depths of COVID, when persistently unsafe working conditions (how about a trash bag for an improvised gown? Or a ventilation helmet so loud that it induces hearing loss? Perhaps a “reprocessed” N95 that some unknown colleague elsewhere in your hospital has been using for an undisclosed number of days is more your speed?) forced her to make the difficult decision to leave the bedside. She was pregnant and what her employer was willing to consider “safe” did not pass muster in her judgement as someone who was becoming a mother.

In this country, nurses and other healthcare workers are under-resourced, understaffed, and endure grueling schedules. The result is a situation that is unsafe for workers and patients alike. And for those of us who love a healthcare worker, we watch the stress mount over years; immense pride in their accomplishments mixes with sorrow at the needless human toll it takes.

Looking back, my partner and I both wonder why we thought that the working conditions she was subjected to and the compensation she received was at all justifiable. Some of it was the youthful indifference to one’s own well-being that many of us adopt in our twenties; you can do anything for a little while, especially when you don’t have many obligations outside work. But some of it was also indoctrination to the inanity that “everyone has to pay their dues,” a trite mantra that transmutes exploitation into a virtue and compassion into a vice.

I’m happy for the workers at KP for getting what they wanted in this strike, and I’m equally happy for their loved ones. Like them, I know little about healthcare, but I’ve witnessed the human toll of this kind of work. If I were in their shoes, I would feel distinct reassurance that my partner is going to work with a union watching their back. Seeing nurses—so many of them women and women of color—stand up for themselves and demand better treatment, I find this conclusion to be inescapable: Solidarity among workers is an act of self-care with positive spillover effects; it is love for yourself, your colleagues, your patients (and students), and the people you’re spending your life with.

Jared M. Poole

Assistant Professor of Management and FSU Executive Committee Representative