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Nurses at the front lines of an economics debate? You bet your health!

Note: Registered Nurses Linda Hamilton, Bernadine Engeldorf and Jean Ross wrote this column for the “Labor Voices” featured in the October 2011 edition of The St. Paul Union Advocate. It also appears on the blog at

From Madison to Wall Street, from St. Paul to Washington D.C., people are seeing nurses dressed in red scrubs, holding not a stethoscope but a megaphone. We are carrying signs. We are marching en masse. And we are raising our voices. This may seem unusual behavior for our profession, but in truth, our history is deeply rooted in social advocacy, as well as the bedside advocacy you’ve come to trust. We’re doing more because we must.

We are facing a crisis in our profession and in the realm in which it serves. Anger is building. We see it in the weary faces of our colleagues, hear it in the exasperated tone of our voices and feel it in the now-permanent clench of our jaws.

But we’ve recognized that if this is true for the majority of us, an insidious grand scheme is working. Wall Street power brokers are counting on us to assume the role of submissive, quiet caregivers who don’t question or protest.

Imagine their surprise to discover, instead, enraged and engaged nurses. We’ve connected the dots that directly link power and greed to inadequate staffing and unsafe conditions for the patients in our care. The deplorable conditions in which we work right now are fully intentional. Wall Street is literally getting away with murder.

It is up to us to expose the travesty that financial inequity inflicts on our society; 2.7 million nurses in the United States do have a voice – and we are obligated by our social contract to use our influence for good.

We witness Main Street hurting. Millions have lost their jobs and their homes, face bankrupting medical bills and are jammed into over-crowded classrooms and emergency rooms. Soup kitchens, food pantries and food stamps now provide sustenance for millions more. Meanwhile, Wall Street-funded politicians are intent on stealing more from working families.

That is why nurses across the nation have been leading the movement for a Main Street Contract. We protested last spring on the streets of Madison, where our supply of signs demanding a “Tax on Wall Street to Heal America” was drained within minutes. And on Sept. 1, nurses held 61 actions all over the country urging elected officials to commit to the principles of the Main Street Contract to rebuild the American dream.

We are cheering and marching and even lending our professional hands now with the Occupy actions arising all over our country.

Nurses are turning our anger into action, realizing our power – and making a difference.

We must make Wall Street pay for the devastation it has caused families on Main Street. Our clear-cut, concise solution is a Financial Transaction Tax. It is a modest levy on trades of stocks, derivatives and currencies that could generate billions in revenue to help our ailing economy, stimulate job growth, re-fund essential services, and discourage the reckless, high-volume/short-term profit computer-driven Wall Street gambling that lead to our current economic crisis. First proposed by a Nobel Prize winning economist, the initiative is already in play in more than 40 countries around the world.

But as we all in the labor movement continue to speak up on this larger scale, we have no doubt we will be subject to ridicule poisonous onslaughts from every corner. It has already begun. An editorial in the Boston Herald in response to our Nurses National Day of Action questioned our organizational right to demand economic justice.

Here’s their direct statement: “We assumed a labor union that represents nurses was in the business of negotiating fair pay and decent working conditions for those who do the difficult work of caring for the sick. We didn’t realize that federal tax policy and securities regulation were part of its portfolio.”

This patriarchal, condescending venom is directly aimed at instilling self-doubt among our ranks. It is meant for us to question our role in social justice – both as nursing professionals and labor activists. It is a menacing shot across the bow to intimidate us from using the strongest tool any society has against oppression – that of collective action.

So get out the vaccine, friends. Take the strongest dose possible, and duly prepare yourself for more vicious attacks.

This is no time to question ourselves. Indeed, question everything else except our own role, our own power and our own vision of a healthy America.

– Linda Hamilton is president of the Minnesota Nurses Association. Bernadine Engeldorf is first vice president of the MNA. Jean Ross is co-president of National Nurses United. All three labor leaders are registered nurses.

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