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The War on Nurses


A May 24 article in the NY Times noted a provision in the recently passed Senate immigration reform bill that expands the number of foreign nurses who may work in the U.S. The article cited a national shortage of nurses for the removal of the current restriction on nurses from abroad. Lifting this cap on immigration is the idea of Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, and backed by the American Hospital Association.

Strikingly, the Senate’s immigration provision for the labor shortage of U.S. nurse contrasts with policy for medical doctors, of whom there is a supposed shortage. Crucially, there is a government cap on the number of foreign physicians who may practice medicine in the U.S. Thus domestic doctors, the most highly paid in the industrialized world, are insulated from foreign job competition.

Since the Vietnam War ended, the weakening of U.S. blue-collar workers, protection from foreign competition has driven down their real wages, or what their pay can buy. The Senate’s provision in its immigration bill will exert similar pressure on the wages of native-born nurses. One needs no formal economics training to grasp these basics of labor supply and demand.

An excess of job-seekers allows employers to lower wage rates. A shortage of workers enables them to ask for and get increased pay.

Also on May 24, the Wall Street Journal reported that a ruling by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board could change the legal status of some of the nation,s nurses. At stake is their collective-bargaining status. An upcoming NLRB ruling that could define nurses as being supervisory would exclude thousands of nurses from joining labor unions.

President Bush appointed each of the five NLRB members. It follows that they share his vision of an “ownership society. It privileges individualism in contrast to the ideals of social solidarity that, historically, has been a factor for the organized labor movement in the U.S.

Politically, the GOP is no ally of labor unions, especially those that are progressive. Take the California Nurses Association, which has backed a national health care program for years. In 2005, the CNA also launched a loud push-back that helped to defeat Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s costly special election to weaken the living and working standards of labor union members in the government and private sectors.

An NLRB ruling reclassifying nurses as supervisors would reduce the number of unionized nurses in the U.S. Their corporate employers such as the American Hospital Association would benefit in at least two ways.

First, overtime wage rates would likely drop or disappear for salaried nurse supervisors. Second, a re-classified job status via a NLRB ruling would hamper organized labor,s effort to expand the number of union nurses.

The CNA-led win in 2005 over Gov. Schwarzenegger points the way to countering the Senate and NLRB,s one-two punching of U.S. nurses. Imagine the example of the California nurses, triumph against the state GOP machine expanded nationwide. The CNA,s strategy of publicly facing up to Gov. Schwarzenegger worked well; it can with adjustments also work against Washington,s enemies of labor union members.

SETH SANDRONSKY is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor of Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at



Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild.

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