Blood on the tracks
May 20, 2010 -- Today Reuters released a short video report by Ian Lee about a protest by "thousands" of French nurses who blocked train traffic at one of Paris's busiest stations before police forcibly removed them. The nurses said they had completed two years of government-approved specialty training to become anesthetists, on top of the initial three years required to become a nurse, but the government had apparently failed to recognize their training, with a recent protocol offering them no additional salary and allowing nurses without the special training to undertake the anesthesia work. The brief piece might have given more explanation, starting with a response from the government. But it does tell the public about an extraordinary example of nursing advocacy in response to apparent disrespect for nursing skills, with one protester lamenting that the government does not listen to the nurses, who are "despised."
The video shows many nurses on the train tracks, and police literally dragging them off with some difficulty, meeting passive resistance. Reporter Ian Lee says that the nurses' sit-in "forced officials to remove them after paralyzing train traffic between Paris and western France." The "specialized anesthetists" reportedly said that their salaries do not reflect the extra two years of study, and the report points to a new government "protocol" as the spark that started the protest:
[The nurses'] frustration boiled over several weeks ago, starting the movement, when a new protocol failed to recognize their specialization. To add insult to injury in their eyes the protocol also allowed non-specialized nurses to work in anesthetics.
The report also gives one of the protesting nurses a considerable audio quote:
We're despised. This is what we've come to because the government made us promises and didn't want to... They don't listen to us. This is what they've driven us to. We're just nurses. All we want is for our five years of studies to be recognized, for everything we do to be recognized. We spend every day taking care of the sick and this is what we get.
The short report might have explained more of what's going on. Does the government have any explanation for its reported actions? What exactly were the nurse anesthetists supposed to be able to do with their additional training? Could the government really be permitting nurses to become anesthesia practitioners with no additional training? Were the protesting nurses arrested? Of course, all of this would start with seeking a response from the government. The report might also have sought comment from train travelers, to get a sense of whether the public had enough sympathy for the nurses' cause to tolerate the inconvenience and burden of the delay.
Still, the report offers a striking example of advocacy from a profession not known for radical public protests, at least in recent years. There are exceptions, like a February 2010 hunger strike in Bangladesh, where after seven days of a hunger strike, 150 nurses reportedly threatened to immolate themselves if they were not hired, in a nation where there is one nurse for every 20 patients. The government acquiesced at the final moment. Or consider a 2005 hunger strike in Peru, where nearly 700 nurses went on a 38-day strike, much of it a hunger strike, seeking a livable wage. And of course, even in the United States, the California Nurses Association has not hesitated to make its feelings about nurses' working conditions known in powerful ways in various public arenas.
More nurses should consider creative ways (short of immolation) to get the attention of governments and societies who may otherwise simply ignore the nurses' concerns, because after all, they are "just nurses." It's also important to note that this French protest, at least as described by the quoted protester, seems to focus on a key underlying issue for nursing--that decision-makers often do not appear to value nursing skills or listen to nurses even on issues that relate directly to nursing practice. Perhaps that is why the nurses would go to these lengths. Note that the protester did not talk about the time and money spent on the training that would seem to have been wasted, but instead spoke of the government's apparent disrespect (even animosity) for the nurses.
We thank Reuters for the report. And we urge all nurses to consider what it would take for them to lie down on the railroad tracks and refuse to move. How far are you from that point? (Please let us know in the comment section below. Thank you.)
Also see "Desperate Nurses in Bangladesh Stage Hunger Strike" from February 20, 2010 (listen to the report in mp3) and "Thousands of Bangladeshi Nurses Demand Jobs" (listen to the report in mp3) posted May 21, 2010, both by Ric Wasserman, posted on Asia Calling.