Nurses defend their strike action against attacks from the government, employers and Barbados Labour Party [BLP] aligned trade union leaders
By Tee White
On Wednesday 16 December after a meeting of the Social Partnership, a forum which brings together government, employers and trade union organisations to discuss social, political and economic issues facing the country, Prime Minister Mia Mottley hosted a press conference in which she unleashed a scathing attack on the striking nurses and, in particular, Caswell Franklyn, the opposition senator who is also the leader of the Unity Workers Union (UWU) which represents the striking nurses
Prime Minister Mottley accused the nurses of prematurely initiating strike action without following the accepted procedures and accused their leader of using the action to further his own political ambitions. The Barbados Premier further denounced the UWU leader for encouraging its members to abandon patients and declared that since the nurses were on strike, the government would dock their pay.
Working Class Solidarity
The Prime Minister’s attack on the striking nurses was, not surprisingly, fully supported by the Barbados Private Sector Association. More surprisingly though, her stand was also backed by the leaders of various trade unions including the Barbados Association of Medical Practitioners (BAMP), the Barbados Nurses Association (BNA), the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) and the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados (CTUSAB). Openly violating the basic principles of working class solidarity which – as leaders of workers’ organisations they are supposed to uphold – these trade union leaders distanced themselves from the nurses and made common cause with the government and employers in their attacks on these health care professionals. The members of these unions will need to hold these leaders to account for their betrayal of basic trade union principles.
Nevertheless, in the face of the onslaught from the government and the forces it had mobilised against them, the nurses have held their ground, being joined by more of their colleagues in the strike action in defence of their rights.
Covid 19 Vaccination Policy
The trigger for the dispute was a botched attempt by the government to introduce its mandatory Covid 19 vaccination policy under the guise of ‘safe zones’ at the geriatric hospital. The management of this institution published a notice identifying unvaccinated nurses who would have to undergo weekly PCR tests. The UWU had previously made it clear to the management that any attempt to impose the mandatory vaccination policy, without consultation with the union, would be met with strike action.
Although the Ministry of Health backed down and stated that the management of the geriatric hospital had acted prematurely since the mandatory vaccination rollout had not yet been approved, the provocative act nevertheless triggered the nurses to take a stand on a number of other issues. These additional grievances, which had remained unresolved for years, included demands for better pay, improved working conditions, health insurance, continuous training and appropriate nurse to patient ratios. These are issues which the nurses have been highlighting consistently and which successive governments, including the current one, have failed to address. The claim that the nurses initiated strike action prematurely is clearly false. In fact, the nurses have put up with unacceptable conditions for too long and it is the government who is in the dock on this issue.
Speaking about her lived reality in the Barbados health care system one nurse explained: “We are standing in solidarity with our colleagues against the authorities trying to implement safe zones without consultation with us. We also have our own grievances at Edgar Cochrane, such as not having enough resources – gloves, blood collection bottles, gauze. Enough is enough. Imagine having to tell a patient they have to buy their own catheter bag; some of our patients can barely afford the bus fare to get to us”.
Another nurse complained that nurse to patient ratios could sometimes reach 1 to 32 [patients to nurse] per day while the suggested ratio is 1 to 6. Directly addressing the despicable claim by the Prime Minister that the union had encouraged the nurses to abandon their patients, Kathy Ann Holder, a registered nurse of 12 years declared:“The whole entire time, never have we abandoned or left our patients for the last two years, with or without pay, with or without the testing, with or without the vaccine when there was none”. In fact, another nurse made the point that the nurses’ struggle is actually aimed to benefit the patients, when she stated: “We are not only standing up for ourselves, but for the patients too”.
In the face of the just cause of the nurses, the government has initiated extreme measures to suppress their struggle. On 18 December, the UWU reported that in addition to not paying them their December salary, the government had put a freeze on some striking nurses’ bank accounts to prevent them accessing some of their money . Director of Finance, Ian Carrington denounced the unions allegation as “total and complete foolishness and utter rubbish”. However, a recording of a nurse speaking to her bank and asking why a portion of her bank balance was unavailable has been circulating on social media. In the recording, the bank’s customer service representative explains to the nurse that her money has been frozen because the government of Barbados had placed a hold on a portion of the money in her account.
In the lead up to the holiday period the oppressive measures of the government against the nurses give the lie to Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s claim that she would not “unfair workers” and must be condemned.
The attack on the striking nurses by the current BLP government reflects its fundamental anti-working class nature and is consistent with its attacks on the hotel workers when they were protesting to receive their severance payments. Whilst they claim that it is the leader of the UWU that is using the nurses’ strike for political ends, it is the Barbados government who have done so, having called on all the political parties in the country to condemn the nurses. While praising the working class activism of Clement Payne and the martyrs of 1937, the government is hell bent on crushing the struggle of the workers for their rights in 2021.
The cause of the nurses is just and the efforts of the government to suppress them are unjust. All out to support the nurses in their struggle!!