We won’t let them ban our stories

Group of nurses in march holding signs "Union women are powerful women"

Rightwing efforts to erase history are sure to increase in an election year. The labor movement must speak truth to power.

When future students read about the Covid-19 pandemic, nurses want our stories to be emblazoned on those pages. We want our grandchildren to understand the righteous anger we felt, rushing between far too many patients at once — some of them our own dying colleagues — while our employers cut corners on staffing and posted record profits. We want history to remember how our employers made us wear PPE until it fell apart, intentionally ignoring our demand that they put public health above private profit, and how we had to hold nationwide rallies, pickets, and strikes just to win the most basic patient and nurse protections.

But we know if our profit-driven employers have their way, the story of Covid will be fiction. Hospitals are already pushing a “nursing shortage” myth, claiming they were unable to prepare for or weather a pandemic because nurses were in short supply. The truth is that for decades — long before Covid — huge numbers of nurses have been actively driven away from the profession by their employers due to unsafe working conditions. Covid just amplified the abysmal conditions, and as of this writing, according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 1.3 million actively licensed RNs in this country are not currently employed as RNs. There is no shortage of nurses, just a shortage of nurses willing to work in a dangerous environment.

Rather than admit they created their own crisis, however, the hospital industry has hoped their lies, spoken loudly enough, will eventually become the official record of what happened. As we move from Black history month into women’s history month, nurses are taking note of how our employers’ disregard for reality echoes something disturbing happening in this country overall, as rightwing forces try to rewrite history. In the same way our hospital employers grow their profits by intentionally denying the health and safety needs of working people and the public, the right is building their power by intentionally denying the humanity and history of entire communities.

The attempt to rewrite history is not about protecting the health and safety of school children (something nurses know more about than anyone); it’s a calculated power grab. If profit-driven corporations and elected officials faced the ugly parts of history, they would have to question the route that brought them into power and kept them there. So they pull library books off the shelves when they don’t want to contend with the facts recorded on the pages. They ban the teaching of any version of history where they and their predecessors were on the wrong side, putting profits and power above public health and humanity.

They hope working people will grow exhausted from fighting to correct the narrative, and after a while, their spin on reality will replace the truth. But nurses never forget. As patient advocates, we’re duty-bound to speak up for all forms of justice in our patients’ everyday lives. Nurses see clearly what’s happening, and we know our union siblings in other industries see it, too.

Across the country, we’re seeing austerity for the majority and more tax cuts for the rich. We are seeing the elimination of transgender people and others who are deemed “undesirable.” In some states, our transgender youth patients are banned from receiving lifesaving health care, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that this care improves health outcomes. As a nation, we are dealing with the fallout of the overturn of Roe v. Wade and with our patients being unable to make lifesaving health care choices for their own bodies. We’re seeing our climate future hijacked by the fossil fuel industry — and Jim Crow 2.0 with laws diminishing voting power for people of color.

Let’s be clear: The authoritarian right’s vision of the future looks shamefully like the ugliest eras of our nation’s past. This is why even during Black history month, states like Florida have been pushing a positive retelling of something as appalling as slavery — while they ban any teaching of the actual, ugly truth.

When they’re attacking public schools and libraries, they’re attacking institutions that can be the incubators for democracy and diversity. They’re trying to block resources and spaces that can help us understand how corporate forces and corporate-backed politicians have always prioritized profit over humanity. They’re driving wedges between people to make it more difficult for us to act in solidarity. The actual truth means nothing to them, as they use every means available to entrench once and for all a dangerous, racist, sexist, undemocratic, uncaring, fascist society.

So how do we fight back? By standing in solidarity to speak truth to power, and by telling our stories loudly and frequently. As working people, we have to organize and fight with everything we have to be the keepers of the right side of history. To channel profits to the top, capitalism has always required working people to bypass our inner knowing and obey authority. But that’s not what nurses and union workers do.

We listen to the public (our patients), we listen to science, we listen to one another, and throughout history, our compass has always pointed us in the right direction. At so many critical moments in time, nurses and union workers have envisioned a healthier, more caring way forward — even when the direction in which we were pointed totally went against the status quo. Even when our ideal path ran contrary to our economic system. And even when we were told change was “impossible.” We fought for and won change anyway.

Our resistance has looked different in different eras, and we’re often so busy fighting the next fight that we don’t always have the opportunity to look back at how far we’ve come. When we do, it’s clear that year by year, decade by decade, win by win, nurses and union workers have been moving the trajectory of society away from profit and toward care.

Our union nurses in California managed to make the golden state the only state in the country with safe nurse-to-patient staffing limits and mandatory, nurse-driven workplace violence prevention plans — protections we have been consistently fighting to advance at the national level. We have been standing up for decades for racial, gender, economic, and health care justice for our patients and our colleagues — and we have seen wins on all of those issues, in our contract language and in advancing legislation. During Covid, nurses have spoken truth to power at the highest levels, including at the White House. It’s not hyperbole to say that countless patient and nurse lives were saved because we spoke up.

We are also proud to see how much the entire labor movement has grown in numbers and in power in recent years. In 2023 alone, we saw historic strikes and bargaining wins by nurses, auto workers, writers, actors, and an averted strike by UPS workers that resulted in a major contract win. Every time we grow our numbers and advance the safety of our workplaces with strong contracts, we actively change the course of history for the better.

In the decades to come, we will stand in global solidarity to tackle the climate crisis, the next pandemic, and worldwide threats to democracy. Covid made us even more fired up than ever before to get Medicare for All across the finish line. We will fight against the corporate push to have AI technologies and algorithms replace registered nurse care and critical, human workers in other industries. We will organize every nurse and worker in this country, and around the world, so that our power can continue to grow to meet the serious threats we face.

We will continue standing up to rightwing, corporate forces as they revoke our right to bodily autonomy, and vilify marginalized groups to keep the focus off of the billionaires who are actually responsible for so much suffering. We will raise our collective voices against their attempts to rewrite the past.

In these months focused on Black history and women’s history — and in this election year when we know that attempts to divide us will only increase — I want to encourage nurses and working people to keep sharing your stories. Tell the children in your lives what happened, and what is still happening today. Because we can never let our employers or our elected officials pass off their lies to future generations and call them “history.” We can’t let the school kids of the future learn some corporate-driven version of what happened.

Union workers know that when we stand together in solidarity, we can actively change the course of history at such a profound level. And I know that together, we will continue to lead the way through the fights ahead, with public health as our guiding star. Now is the time, and we are the generation to make it happen.