At the 2021 NNU convention, RNs stepped up the fight for a culture based on care

Every three years, National Nurses United delegates from across the country come together at the NNU convention to learn, recharge, strengthen our solidarity, and set the guiding principles for our union. The 2021 convention, held online from October 12–14, was an especially critical time for nurses to gather and collectively look to the future. This year, we dreamt our way beyond just the immediate goal of ending Covid-19; we also allowed ourselves to imagine the kind of world nurses can create on the other side — a world based on care.

“Our employers have failed us every single step of the way, from telling us we could wear bandanas for PPE in the early days — to the present moment, when they’ve tried to excuse their ongoing failure to fund full-time staff positions by telling us caring for four ICU patients or 10 med/surg patients is just our duty,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN, in the convention’s keynote speech. “We are going to collectively refuse to accept things had to be this way. As union nurses, we’re going to stand together this week and continue course correcting our way to a better world.”

After an exciting opening night, with NNU Presidents Deborah Burger; RN, Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN; and Jean Ross, RN holding intimate conversations with each NNU affiliate; an online art show; and a virtual dance party courtesy of the Rebirth Brass Band, registered nurse delegates got to work in the opening plenary, “Our Fight is a Fight for the Future.” Nurses were honored to welcome plenary panel guests and renowned scholars Silvia Federici and Robin D.G. Kelley, who opened our minds on the devaluation of care work in our present culture — and emphasized that RNs can play a crucial role in recentering care in society.

“A capitalist society cannot survive movements, a transformation, that places the well-being of the community at the center,” said Federici, emphasizing that care work keeps all life going, even if capitalism makes the art and skill of care workers invisible. This truth really hit home for nurses, who saw so clearly during Covid that without our work and the work of other women-dominated care professions such as domestic workers and teachers, all of society shuts down.

Federici and Kelley outlined the ways in which our current, profit-driven culture is fueled by division — racial injustice, gender injustice, and the idea that some people are naturally worth less than others. If some people are worth less, our panelists explained, it’s easier for employers to exploit them for profit, and that’s why it’s so important that nurses reject discrimination of all kinds. It was cathartic and inspiring to hear Federici and Kelley articulate so clearly what we see every day at work and emphasize the importance of our vision, as nurses.

Nurse delegates also dove deep into the conference theme, “Scope of Solidarity,” in a session with Global Nurses United leaders and international guests reflecting on lessons from the past year. Jibin T C, National Working Secretary of the United Nurses Association (UNA) of India, outlined how a failure of India’s public health system, lack of employer and political will, and rampant profiteering in the private health care sector, among other factors, contributed to the Delta variant surge in that country.

He outlined the importance of nurses standing together internationally to combat future pandemics, saying that UNA “will make sure our support will be with Global Nurses United and all the nurses” across the globe. Vaccine equity was also top of mind with our global guests, as many low-income countries struggle to get even single digit percentages of their population vaccinated.

“We are witnessing what can only be described as vaccine apartheid,” said Carina Vance Mafla, co-coordinator of Progressive International’s Union for Vaccine Internationalism and a member of the National Front for Health and Social Protection of Ecuador. Panel guests emphasized the importance of organizing and solidarity in delivering vaccines to areas of the world so far excluded from the vaccine rollout — and in generally improving the lives of patients around the world.

“We are at a moment where people all over the planet, perhaps motivated by the Covid crisis, but also motivated by so many crises that are apparent and deadly, are rising up strong,” said panel guest Ruth Wilson Gilmore, professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at CUNY Graduate Center.

In addition to panel discussions, nurses had the opportunity to take CE courses on important topics such as Covid and the crisis of care work, the latest science on Covid-19, fighting for Covid vaccine equity, the history of public health, the future of labor, and more.

Nurses also saw their personal experiences reflected in the closing night program, “Uncharted,” a mini-documentary featuring the stories of seven NNU and GNU registered nurses who faced devastating losses and experienced life-changing victories throughout Covid-19. If you haven’t yet seen it, you can watch it at this link. (Warning: Get a whole box of tissues ready!)

On the final day, delegates came together for the most important work of the convention: passing the union’s resolutions for the coming years. We could not be more proud of the forward-thinking resolutions that passed this year. In addition to calling for a stepped-up fight against Covid, this year’s resolutions also recommitted the union’s fight for workers’ rights, Medicare for All, global health and vaccine equity, and racial and gender justice. You can read all about the 2021 resolutions here.

Covid-19 has shown us so clearly that the society we currently live in just isn’t working. Nurses know there’s a better way — a world that values people and the planet over profit. And we also know that every time we come together and advance our commitment to a culture of care, we are one step closer to making this vision a reality. Thank you to the NNU delegates for taking the time to attend the convention; the work you did will have a lasting impact for years to come.

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