A two-day warning strike paralyzed Frankfurt University Hospital until Friday evening. More than 4,000 non-medical employees take part, protesting against the lack of personnel and the catastrophic working conditions. These conditions have worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, with many sick. More recently, the state responsible for the Hesse University Hospital even tried to send nurses who still tested positive for COVID-19 back to work.
Cynically, the lack of staff is seen as a plus in the hospital’s financial calculations, which is why management is trying to maintain the status quo. But workers are no longer willing to accept untenable conditions, and the warning strike can easily lead to an indefinite strike.
It is part of a global offensive by healthcare personnel. There have been and still are strikes by nurses in the United States, France, Spain and Greece, as well as in Sri Lanka. In the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the staff of university hospitals have been on strike for 11 weeks, as have the Berlin nursing staff of the flagship hospitals of Charité and Vivantes.
Nurses in oncology, surgery and outpatient departments told the WSWS of a veritable wave of resignations with more and more colleagues resigning out of sheer exhaustion. The situation in these neighborhoods is about to boil over, he said.
“My working week sometimes lasts 72 hours,” says Carina. “We nurses are taking over a lot of the work from doctors, who themselves are terribly overwhelmed.” In oncology, she says, two registered nurses are responsible for 25 patients.
“We do the work of doctors, but we are paid like beginners,” echoed Stephan, who works in the emergency room. Shifts are so tightly scheduled, he says, that families and social contacts lose out. “Something really has to change!”
Nurses were amazed at how the government raised ‘100 billion euros for the Bundeswehr [German armed forces] in the blink of an eye,” as one said, when there was supposedly no money for nursing.
“Employee burnout is increasing every day,” was the message of a letter signed by 150 Frankfurt employees sent to hospital management last year. The signatures came mostly from intensive care units which were overloaded with severe coronavirus cases, and still are today. The letter said the chronic staff shortage was having a devastating effect. “Many complain of sleep disturbances or leave the ward crying – this is not an acceptable situation.”
As autumn and winter waves of the coronavirus, driven by the highly contagious BA.5 variant, approached, the Hessian state government decided in July to open the floodgates for a mass infection. He decreed that even infected employees who still test positive for the coronavirus must return to work. Angela Dorn, Minister of Science and the Arts of Hesse and member of the Green Party, is the person responsible. She is also chairwoman of the Supervisory Board of Frankfurt University Hospital.
This state policy triggered a wave of indignation that forced him to retract. Infected colleagues must now test negative, but not by PCR test, in order to return to work.
At the University Hospital Marburg/Gießen, Hesse’s second university hospital, however, coronavirus-positive nurses can still work as a team. This decision threatens the lives of nurses and patients. It is an expression of the politics of profits before the life of the parties in power.
Two and a half years of pandemic, which bled the staff of the service, finally revealed only the grievances that had already accumulated. The introduction of DRGs (Diagnosis Related Groups), which downgrade any patient to a “case”, has had a particularly devastating effect. DRGs determine which therapies, durations, etc., will be covered by insurance, putting enormous pressure on doctors and hospital management.
“Since then, there have been massive staff reductions,” one nurse told us. “Patients who in the past would have been nursed back to health are now often discharged too soon. This case-by-case system,” she added, “should be abolished as soon as possible!
To achieve such goals, however, the struggle must be waged independently of the unions. These organizations isolate each struggle and lock up the reprehensible conditions which are themselves a consequence of the government’s policies of mass infection and war. The increased pressure on wages is also the result of inflation and the explosion of prices generated by militarism. On all these issues, the unions side with the ruling coalition government and its policy of war against Russia.
Services union Verdi has kept the issues of the pandemic and runaway inflation out of its negotiations. Instead, it focuses only on the “collective agreement on relief” (TV-E), which has already proven to be a purely cosmetic measure and a distraction in the states of Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).
In NRW, nursing staff went on strike in university hospitals for 11 weeks before Verdi smothered it with TV-E in July. This contract provides for binding staff-patient ratios in the departments, which, if they are not respected, earn points for the nurse, but he or she is only entitled to a relief day after having accumulated seven of these points.
The main problem is that there is still a shortage of personnel. So if someone takes a day off, their colleagues have to cover that person’s workload, a vicious circle that doesn’t solve anything. In addition, nursing staff will have to wait another year and a half for this system to come into force.
A TV-E had already been concluded at the Charité and Vivantes hospitals in Berlin. Verdi called off a strike there last fall after 50 days. This TV-E also failed to improve the untenable working conditions.
Verdi’s secretaries and negotiators have decades of experience in harnessing workers’ resistance. They are loyal partners of the hospital management and the state government. Georg Schulze, who leads the negotiations in Frankfurt, is not only the regional department head of Verdi, but also the deputy chairman of the supervisory board of Rhön-Kliniken, which took over the university hospital in Marburg/Gießen. Without people like Schulze, the privatization of public hospitals would never have been easier. Schulze received €57,000 in supervisory board fees last year and €122,000 the previous year, all on top of his actual salary as Verdi’s secretary.
Frankfurt’s Verdi secretary for the health sector, Hilke Sauthof-Schäfer, who launched the warning strike on Thursday, also has years of experience with Verdi labor disputes. She sits on the supervisory board of the Hanau clinic, where she was initially the president of the works council. As a local Left Party candidate, she has the best relations with the establishment parties in Hesse, especially with the left, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens.
In the fight for a quality health care system and humane conditions in clinics, nurses – like employees of airports, schools and daycare centers, and the public transport system – need their own democratically managed bodies. and able to act independently of trade unions.
The Nursing Action Committee, which was formed during the strike in NRW and is a member of the International Workers Alliance of Rank-and-File Committees (IWA-RFC), has made the following demands for industrial action:
- For each understaffed shift, the people concerned must receive compensation equal to the absent worker’s salary plus a stress bonus of 50%! Those who work for two must also be paid for two. Only in this way can the treacherous system be terminated, with which the hospitals gain from the lack of personnel.
- Immediate doubling of the workforce! Each of us knows that adequate care is only possible with a massive increase and a reversal of all staff reductions.
- This is only possible if nurses are finally paid adequately. Given the high inflation, the unions’ wage policy means an unacceptable wage loss. To compensate for this and previous reductions in real wages, wages must be increased by at least 30% and adjusted for inflation on a sliding scale!
- 100 billion euros for health instead of weapons! For years, the clinics were reduced to nothing under the pretext that there was no money. Today, appalling sums are spent to make Germany the greatest military power in Europe. Instead, the money must be invested in the fight against pandemics and in the massive expansion of the health system.
- The lump sum system and the associated profit orientation for hospitals must be abolished immediately. Privatized facilities must be immediately transferred to social ownership. The health system should not be managed in the interest of a handful of shareholders, but rather for the benefit of the entire population.
Independent rank-and-file committees will provide workers with all the information they need and advance their common struggles across all corporate, industrial and national borders. Get involved in building these workers’ bodies and the International Workers Alliance of Rank-and-File Committees (IWA-RFC) which coordinates them!
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