Normal Means

This story comes to us from MAS member SN Nappalos about experiences working in healthcare. —

Fabiola closed her eyes. On the television, a preacher spoke a prayer while the patient rested quietly in the bed. That day Fabiola was fired, or terminated as management called it.

The supervisor crept in quietly, and reported finding Fabiola with her eyes closed. He found a witness and returned to see her standing at the sink, the patient still asleep. Security guards entered the room shortly, and she was escorted from the building.

She was probably the best worker in the whole place, a hospital filled with tired eyes, managerial malice, and worn furniture. Fabiola was a favorite of the director, being asked to do special jobs to make patients happy, and serving on management boards for “continuous improved”. Her fair skin and tendency to speak French rather than Kreyol gave clues to her history. Everyone loved her; she could cross the lines of the clicks that can break up hospitals.

I was one of the senior staff on the unit, having been one of the few people to stay longer than a year. Constant abuse, screaming, and the futility of serving smothered any desire to stay, let alone fight.

These situations were not unfamiliar. I had worked, organized, and tried to build up counterpower in similar environments for more than a decade. The past couple years I worked to change the way we related to our work, our daily experience of work, through talking with coworkers, agitating, taking people aside, and stimulating small acts of resistance. The struggle was to find those situations that would allow us to act together and show us our common power.

Fabiola’s firing initiated a chain of banal events. Words spoken, grievances filed, committees chatted, people taken aside; business as usual. Yet she represented too much of a loved figure and too good a worker for the firing to stick. It was too egregious an error for the union to pass up, while normally they couldn’t be bothered. They wanted to file a grievance, and to let her wait a year before seeing any compensation. Let the law have its due course as God is willing.

A few people on my unit were furious. We had discussed fighting back before, because they were the ones who would speak up at meetings when management said we would have to work harder; they had let them know patients would suffer, and it was unjust. I had identified them, and tried to catalyze action; with no results.

Now they were in a different place, actively demanding we do something,. We came up with the idea of a petition, which we would deliver to management. It was clear we didn’t have the power to strike or do something disruptive to force their hand. People were concerned, but didn’t believe they could fight back.

These nurses then independently went throughout the whole hospital collecting hundreds of signatures, breaking the contract and reorganizing their day independently to take action. The union immediately short cut the activity and got ahold of the petitions, delivering them themselves. In doing so, they stopped the direct action, which was against their idea of working together with management, and it showed their higher up union bosses that they were doing things, even though the workers organized it.

Fabiola got her job back, but it was a year later. Her case was made harder because she changed her story a few times. Still, the pressure of not being able to find employees who could do what she did and the unity of the whole hospital against the firing made management swallow humble pie and bring her back.

You didn’t see any new organization or militancy spring up. The union was not moved, and this relatively small fight won no lasting gains. Outside the union, there were changes though. Fabiola and the small group of us who organized the petition were transformed by that struggle. Small gifts were exchanged, and almost tearful words spilled when she came back to work. You can see the loving and soft exchanges between those of us, who unknowingly ended up coming together. Trust and solidarity were built. Each person involved has become active around the hospital in trying to push for an alternative in small ways. Though the action was small, and channeled into bureaucracy, it was the social networks that advanced, and which have created space for further breaks from the normal means we have to settle disputes.