Nursing Strike Ethics and the Coolidge Principle

“There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”

Long before he was famous for his abrupt and verbally stingy one-liners, Calvin Coolidge’s best known quote was this one, and we forget it at our peril. The line probably made him President: its context was the Boston police force strike of 1919. Coolidge, then Governor of Massachusetts, sided against the strikers, who despite legitimate demands for better pay and working conditions, lost their jobs. The next generation of Boston police officers, mostly hired from the ranks of veterans of World War I, got the benefits the strikers sought.

Coolidge’s sentiment is still valid, though unpopular, as ever, with organized labor and public servant unions. It was the philosophical and historical basis for President Ronald Reagan’s firing of the striking air traffic controllers during his first term, despite stong public sympathy for their stand. Like the Boston Police in 1919, they also lost their jobs for ever.

12,000 nurses in Minnesota Nurses Association are eligible to vote today on a potential indefinite strike. They held a one-day walkout  on June 10, but it didn’t lead to an agreement between the nurses and hospitals over staffing issues, pay and benefits. The nurses say they need to reduce their workload as a matter of patient safety; the hospitals insist that they have to keep costs down in these budget-challenged times, and need flexibility.

Let’s assume the nurses are 1oo% right and that their cause is just. Let us also assume, without knowing, that the hospital administrators are wrong, exploitive, and dishonest. Nevertheless, there can be no justification for holding the lives of the sick, elderly and injured hostage to labor demands. A nurses’ strike, like a firefighter, police, military  or air traffic controller strike, imposes more than inconvenience. It can kill people. This makes it extortion, the equivalent of a gun to the head.

Union negotiator Nellie Munn insisted that the strike authorization would give nurses a useful tool at the bargaining table. “Our intent is not to take an authorization should we receive and then immediately file a notice in fact the opposite. It’s just we’d have that available to us if we’re unable to move forward with the employers,” Munn said.

Nope. If it is wrong to use a “tool” (or in this case, weapon), it is wrong to have it at the bargaining table. If the execution would be wrong, then the threat is wrong too. If Minnesota nurses strike, administrators should stand up for the Coolidge principle and fire them all, permanently. That unions must not ever endanger the public, even to keep their employers from endangering the public, has to be an absolute principle.

Calvin Coolidge didn’t say a lot, but in 1919, he said enough for all time.

5 thoughts on “Nursing Strike Ethics and the Coolidge Principle

  1. Two questions I have:

    1. If they can’t strike, is there much sense in having a union? Or does it become ceremonial at that point?

    2. Would it be a legit technique for them to threaten to just quit (since nurses are always in need everywhere, they probably wouldn’t have a problem finding a new job)?

    • Unions are collective bargaining organizations. Not being able to strike hurts their bargaining power some, but professional who aren’t able to strike alos are usually the ones that can gather tremendous public sympathy for their demands. Sure, they could quit, and there is a demand for nurses, as you say. I suspect that if they really thought they could do much better by quitting, a lot of them would.

  2. The purpose of unions is not only to provide a bargaining tool for workers. It is also to promote professionalism and moral standards among its membership in their collective trade. At least, this is the theory. In practice, unions have often fallen short! What does it say for professionalism and morality when, for the purpose of better wages, medical personnel attempt to withhold their vital services to the public? This creates life threatening situations for people who are dependent on those services and hold no stake in the dispute. On this principle, President Reagan fired the striking air controllers… and rightfully so.

  3. If they didn’t have a union, the arbitrator from the federal government wouldn’t have stepped in. The union can also help by setting up uniform pay grades and taking a role in employee disciplinary actions.

    It appears that the nurses are in a bind. They want higher staffing levels, which would be good, but they don’t want to take a pay cut to allow that to happen. Now you see why healthcare costs increase in the double digits each year.

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