Making history

The registered nurses of Chinese Hospital are living role models of Asian American struggle and victory

“Representation matters.”

That phrase is commonly used by Asian American Pacific Islander communities to express the importance of seeing and including Asian faces, characters, and stories in media and popular culture. It’s emblematic of the much larger and continuous struggle people of Asian descent have fought for centuries in the United States against exclusion, against bigotry and racism, against xenophobia, and against the pervasive attitude that we are interlopers who will never belong.

For the registered nurses of Chinese Hospital in San Francisco, however, those words have an even deeper meaning. Beginning just shortly before and throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the workforce of predominantly Asian American women nurses fought for and won union representation and their very first contract with their employer, the only Chinese hospital in the United States and a San Francisco Chinatown institution.

As we celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the nurses of Chinese Hospital are a living, inspiring example of the courage, determination, resilience, and solidarity Asian Americans in the United States have displayed in fighting for social justice for themselves, their patients, and their communities.

The patterns of discrimination, violence, racism, and xenophobia against Asian Americans repeated throughout United States history are many, varied, and ugly, from the deadly exploitation of Chinese labor to build the Transcontinental railways, to Congress’ passage in 1882 of the Chinese Exclusion Act to explicitly target one ethnicity and strip them of their most basic rights, to the unlawful imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, to the deadly, racist beating of Vincent Chin in 1982 by white men who served zero jail time for the murder.

Credit: American Experience: The Chinese Exclusion Act

Most recently and especially because we have been scapegoated — even by a former U.S. president — for the Covid-19 pandemic, Asian Americans across the country have suffered a serious spike in racially-motivated violence, with the 2021 killings of female, Asian spa workers in Atlanta as one of the deadliest examples.

Against this political and historical backdrop, the Chinese Hospital nurses proudly struggle to fulfill their role as patient advocates. The hospital itself was born from exclusion and discrimination; the sizeable San Francisco Chinese community founded it in the early 20th century to serve Chinese residents who could not get care at white hospitals, who feared for their safety traveling outside Chinatown to seek care, and who were not comfortable getting care at the city’s other hospitals because of language barriers.

Credit: KTVU.com

The hospital is a special place: Almost all of the 120 or so registered nurses and many of the medical staff are of Asian descent, almost all speak at least one (and often multiple) dialects of Chinese, and the vast majority of patients are older Chinese Americans or Chinese immigrants. The nurses provide culturally sensitive and culturally appropriate care, always pouring warm or hot water for patients and draping lots of blankets or towels over patients to keep them on the warmer side. Even the hospital kitchen serves primarily an Asian menu, with lots of hot soup, hot rice porridge, and stir-fried Asian vegetables.

“There’s no other hospital like it,” said Sherry Yee, a medical-surgical telemetry RN who has worked at Chinese Hospital for seven years and is one of the leaders there who helped unionize the nurses and bargain their first contract. “Because I am helping a population of majority Chinese patients, I feel like I am taking care of my own parents, my own family. I feel like I am making a difference.”

Yee, who immigrated at 4 years old from Vietnam and grew up speaking Cantonese with her parents, said that being able to communicate directly with patients in their native language is key to providing them the highest-quality care. “All hospitals provide translation, sometimes through an iPad,” said Yee. “But being able to explain things in their own language just eliminates a lot of fear for them. It makes them feel more comfortable and that they are in good hands, and that they are going to get better!”

But while patients had a voice, the nurses themselves did not. Yee and her RN colleague, Geraldine Leung, said that the nurses’ main motivations to unionize were to win job security, fair treatment, and a say over their work, wages, and benefits. “Before we unionized, we had no say in anything,” said Leung. “Whatever the hospital gave you, that was it.”

RN leaders Geraldine Leung (front) and Sherry Yee take colleagues on a march through San Francisco Chinatown during their May 25, 2021 strike

Once the nurses decided to affiliate with California Nurses Association, they unionized in a record 17 days. The hard part was negotiating a first contract with an employer who used the Covid-19 pandemic to keep delaying talks by refusing to meet with the nurses.

Of course, the nurses stepped up their activism. In July 2020, they showed unity with the Movement for Black Lives and the huge racial justice demonstrations that summer by staging their own protest declaring that “Racism is a public health crisis.”

It was a message they felt personally, too, as violence against Asian Americans skyrocketed and Asian elders as well as youth in major cities across the United States — including San Francisco — suffered harassment and assault, sometimes deadly. The nurses started asking hospital security to walk them to the employee parking garage. Leung’s father no longer let her walk to work, as she usually did when she happened to be staying at her parents’ house just one block away, and instead insisted on driving her right up to the hospital doors. “The staff really looked out for one another,” said Yee. “We often talked about the safety of being in Chinatown in general.”

In November 2020, the nurses held their first informational picket to alert the community about how Chinese Hospital management refused to address their concerns about unsafe staffing at the facility and retaining their experienced nurses, instead trying to make cuts to the nurses’ health care benefits.

And in May 2021, the Chinese Hospital nurses went on strike for the first time ever, staging a loud and spirited strike line outside the hospital and winning the support of the entire Chinatown community. Yee said that it took hard work and numerous one-on-one conversations to convince and prepare the nurses to strike. Many of the older nurses culturally were not comfortable engaging in such public protest. But, just as they do with their patients, Yee, Leung, and other nurse leaders won over their colleagues with culturally appropriate reasons to strike. In Chinese and many other Asian cultures, the well-being of the group often takes precedence over the individual; in this case, the nurses argued that the strike must be a team effort, that they should overcome their individual fears for the benefit of all the Chinese Hospital nurses and patients, and that there was strength and safety in numbers and solidarity. Some of the nurses also drew courage from the example set by Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, saying, “If they can protest there, we can protest here.” All of it worked to rally and unite the nurses for a successful and historic first strike.

Leung remembers that some of their senior nurses turned out to be the most feisty on the strike line. “Some were even leading chants in Chinese!” said Leung. “And then they would work up an appetite and yell, ‘Let’s all go get dim sum!’”

The Chinese Hospital nurses would not be denied. In October 2021, the nurses ratified their very first contract, which spelled out many basic job securities and economic benefits which, for too long, were subject to management’s whims. Now, management actually responds to the nurses’ concerns and tries to fix issues quickly. The nurses say they still have a lot of work to do, but they can now work collectively through their union to make improvements for their patients, themselves, and the wider Chinatown community.

Representation matters.

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National Nurses United, with more than 175,000 members nationwide, is the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in U.S. history.

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National Nurses United

National Nurses United

National Nurses United, with more than 175,000 members nationwide, is the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in U.S. history.

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