Nancy Hagans, RN, President of the New York State Nurses Association, addresses a rally by members of the New York State Nurses Association, adjacent to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, in New York, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

This year’s New York City Labor Day Parade will kick off Saturday, Sept. 9, with Nancy Hagans, the president of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), at its helm. 

Hagan will serve as the event’s grand marshal as the parade winds its way uptown from 44th Street and Fifth Avenue toward the NYC Central Labor Council (NYCCLC) reviewing stand on 64th Street.

The NYCCLC represents 1.3 million workers in some 300 New York-area unions. At least 200  NYCCLC-affiliated unions are expected to march in this year’s parade. They will be demonstrating in support of this year’s parade theme, “We Organize, We Rise,” which pays homage to the resurging power of labor unions. 

Having NYSNA and its president out in front at the parade points to the impact this year’s strikes by nurses have had on the labor movement. In January, NYSNA members conducted a successful three-day strike against Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. In total, Mount Sinai saw 3,625 nurses walk out on strike, and the Bronx’s Montefiore Medical Center had 3,500 nurses strike over calls for safer nurse-to-patient staffing ratios and against persistently low cost-of-living wages.

“For the past three years, our nurses saved New York––at the height of the pandemic,” Hagans said in an interview with the Amsterdam News. “We went to work when nobody else would go to work. We went to work without any PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). And we asked for change, we demanded that nurses are safe while they were at work and caring for patients, we also demanded care for our patients and our community. 

“So, for us to be recognized as a union and to be [selected to serve as] the grand marshal, it tells you that as nurses, we could organize, and we are doing what we’re supposed to do.” 

Nurses have faced tough, understaffed work environments and demanding schedules for years. The COVID-19 pandemic was an event that finally brought their efforts and sacrifices to the forefront, Hagans asserted. “The pandemic opened up to the public how instrumental nurses are to saving a community and saving patients. So, when we started to organize and started to stand up for our rights, people started looking up to us. By asking for a fair contract, for proper PPE, for safer nurse-to-patient ratios––then other unions started looking at us and said, ‘Oh my gosh, these nurses are doing it, we could do it.’ 

“We organized. And when you organize and you fight together, you win.”

Recent unionizing efforts in higher education and among other medical employees have been fairly successful, the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies notes in its annual State of the Unions report. But organizing drives at major brand-named companies like Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, and Apple have been less successful. Workers have been able to form unions but they remain stuck in a tug-of-war with management who appear to be refusing collective bargaining efforts. “Union organizing has been trending upward among college-educated young workers, and especially those who are difficult to replace, like academic workers,” the CUNY report states. “For them, voting to unionize is far more likely to lead to recognition and a contract than among high-turnover and low-wage workers at companies like Starbucks, which has not yet signed a single contract despite hundreds of elections in which workers voted to unionize and repeated rulings by the National Labor Relations Board against the company’s anti-union conduct.”

NYSNA’s Hagans looks at the pandemic as a learning vehicle, particularly for the nursing industry and its union members. “During the height of the pandemic, the Black and the brown people suffered the most,” she reflected, “we lost more of the Black and the brown people because of lack of care, and we wanted to bring that out into the public. We wanted everybody to know that there are two levels of care, the haves and the have-nots. And we continue to fight to make it one level of care: every patient, every community and everyone around us should be treated as VIPS, whether they have insurance, whether they’re rich, whether they’re poor, whether they’re documented or undocumented. Regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their gender, regardless of the religion, regardless period. And that’s the work that we are going to continue to do, and we will not stop until it’s done.”

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