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labor COVID, Capitalism, and Collapse: A Roundtable Discussion with NYC Nurses and Teachers

NYC teachers and nurses shine a light on the state of schools and hospitals as we near two years of the pandemic. Can workplace organizing stave off collapse and win a transformative political agenda?

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NYSNA healthcare workers at Jacobi Medical Center., Sean Petty

The United States has averaged a thousand people a day dying from COVID since August and the total number of lives lost is approaching a million. The number of children hospitalized with COVID has hit an all-time high nationally. During all of that, the rich have only gotten richer. On the same day we set a new national record for COVID cases, Wall Street hit a record high

Labor journalist and NewsGuild organizer Chris Brooks sat down with a group of New York City nurses and teachers to talk about how the institutions they work for are collapsing and what labor activists can do about it.

Jia Lee, special education teacher at a public school in Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers (UFT) chapter leader and on the steering committee of the Movement for Rank-and-file Educators (MORE).

Kelley Cabrera-Adler, nurse in the adult emergency department at Jacobi Medical Center, a public hospital in the Bronx, and president of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) bargaining unit at their hospital.

Kevin Prosen, middle school teacher in Queens, UFT delegate and member of MORE.

Sean Petty, pediatric emergency room nurse and vice president of the NYSNA bargaining unit at Jacobi Medical Center.


Chris: Even before the pandemic hit we were facing a crisis in both education and healthcare stemming from critical understaffing and grossly deficient funding. These systemic problems were front and center in union fights around nurse-to-patient ratios and class size. Now these systems are collapsing as workers exit these industries in droves. How have you experienced this systemic collapse?

Kevin: Public schools don’t just educate children, they fill in all of the gaps of the American welfare state. When schools collapse, it’s a crisis in how we care for children and their families. Since schools play this fundamental role in our social safety net, when they close down it creates cascading problems everywhere, especially the economy. That’s why there has been an unrelenting push to keep schools open no matter what. The U.S. is now seeing the highest COVID cases of any point in the pandemic and all the advice we’ve been given about masks, distancing and quarantining over the past two years has suddenly gone out the window. The message is: the government is done doing anything substantive to stop the spread of COVID. So of course, every teacher is asking themselves: do I really want to keep doing this? So now schools can barely stay open because so many teachers have quit, are out sick, or are too afraid to come back. It feels like the city government has effectively driven the car into a wall and their solution is to just step on the gas. 

Jia: Going into the 2020-2021 school year, we saw a bottom-up call from NYC teachers to keep the schools closed and maintain a remote option. I'm an elementary school teacher and what ended up happening was elementary schools were forced to open and the middle and high schools were told they could remain remote. That caused a lot of division. The general feeling in elementary schools was ‘Well, if we're not going to look out for each other, then you know what, this is not for me.’ So there were mass resignations. Fast forward to now, COVID is spreading everywhere, and we are being told, ‘if you are vaccinated and the children are vaccinated, you don’t need to quarantine.’ This total indifference to the health and safety of teachers and students isn’t going unnoticed. There was already a teacher shortage, and now we are seeing real declines in enrollment at teacher colleges as things have continued to only get worse. Unless we unite across our union and step up our fight for our profession and for public education, everything is just going to continue getting worse. 

Kelley: I’ve spent the last two years thinking things can’t get worse and then they somehow do. Yesterday was worse than any day I had in March and April of 2020. I would never want to return to those days in 2020, but at least then there was a shutdown. There were no car accidents, stabbings, or gunshots. Asthma went way down. We were largely just dealing with COVID. Now we have COVID layered on top of everything else. And I’m a direct witness to what happens when kids test positive and keep coming to school. Our ER is filling up with both teachers and students. It’s obvious that what happens in education affects what happens in healthcare and both are at the mercy of these deeper systemic failures. 

We are two years into the pandemic and there is still a testing shortage. Twenty City MD locations have closed so they can maintain a bare bones staff at their remaining locations. Lines for testing centers run on for blocks and blocks. The failure to provide adequate care where it is needed leads to increased reliance on the one place that everyone knows they can turn to if they are desperate: the emergency room. Our hospital has a public testing center and the line is so crazy that people give up and just come to the ER to get tested. In the ER, it’s still a five hour wait. 

The acuity is really high in the Bronx and the pandemic has only made it worse. Everyone we see in the ER is now sicker than they were a few years ago, because fewer people have access to the medications they need, many have lost their jobs and health insurance and hold off on getting care until it’s an emergency. The baseline for everything we see is getting worse while the system continues to be flooded with COVID patients and nurses are quitting. 

NYSNA nurses protesting outside of the Jacobi Medical Center. Source: Kelley Cabrera-Adler.

Sean: Nurses and teachers are two of the largest job titles in this country and our jobs put us in some of the highest risk of exposure to this virus. Most of our time is spent interacting with potentially infected people. We've been asked to risk our lives on a daily basis over the last two years, through wave after wave, while at the same time we’ve seen all of these terrible policies, first under Trump and now under Biden, being enacted. Epidemiologists kept warning that failure to vaccinate everyone around the globe would just lead to more mutations. Delta and Omicron are both highly predictable situations. Politicians and employers have tried desperately to coax everyone into a false sense of security after each wave of this virus subsidies. Then they all—not just Biden, but deBlasio and soon to be Adams, Cuomo and now Hochul—act shocked when it mutates and comes back when we failed to do what was needed to keep that from happening. So I think it’s just becoming increasingly clear to everyone that the ruling elite are making a conscious choice to prioritize the profit-driven economy over our lives. They are making that choice everyday by refusing to make vaccines universally available around the globe, refusing to mass manufacture tests, refusing to isolate and quarantine infected workers, and refusing to provide N95 masks to the public. Instead they are telling everyone: you have to go to work. And what we are seeing is that nurses, teachers, and tons of other workers are choosing to quit instead. 

Chris: New York City is the largest school system in the country. What happens here reverberates across school systems everywhere. Recently, de Blasio, Hochul and Adams held a press conference to announce the school system’s new “test to stay” policy. Hochul called remote learning a, “failed experiment,” and essentially said the goal is to keep schools open no matter what. What do you think of the city’s plan?

Jia: There are two parts to this plan. The first is surveillance testing of random groups of students to try and catch the virus before there is an outbreak. The city plans to increase the number of students tested weekly at each school from 10 to 20 percent. But 20% is still far too low. When outbreaks happen, they happen fast. Epidemiologists have been clear that this will not prevent outbreaks. The second part of the plan is contact tracing and testing students who were in “close proximity” to an infected person. This has been a complete failure.

If there is a positive case in my classroom, then the principal has to report it to the Situation Room, which is the Public Health Department’s call-in site for contact tracing in NYC public schools. The Situation Room is then responsible for following up with the infected student, figuring out who they were in three-feet of throughout the day, getting the contact information for those students and then contacting them. The three foot rule has no basis in science, it’s solely intended to limit the number of students who need to quarantine until they are tested. However, the Situation Room is still so overwhelmed by the number of positive cases they cannot keep up. They are telling principals they will get back with them in five to seven days. So what actually happens is teachers send principals a list of names to contact trace and the principals reach out to them. 

As if that wasn’t enough, rapid tests are proving to be less effective detecting Omicron. That was my personal experience. I have COVID right now and am very sick. And like many people, I tested negative on a rapid test and positive on a PCR test. So how are we going to prevent outbreaks of a mutated virus that is now capable of alluding our rapid tests? There is no plan for that.

Kevin: This policy is just theater. We can’t even actually test 20% of students in our school because we can only administer tests to students whose parents formally consent to the testing program. Currently, less than a quarter of K-12 students in New York City schools have provided a consent form. Also, there is no random testing of staff. 

Hochul’s claim that remote learning is being avoided is laughable. Teachers are covering multiple classes at once because so many other teachers are sick or quarantined. Over half of my kids in all of my classes are at home, so learning is still remote for them. So the school system is a Potemkin village. The doors are literally “open,” someone comes and unlocks them every morning, but they are completely collapsing. 

Chris: Why don’t we just mandate vaccinations for students that are five and older? 

Kevin: Students should not be allowed to enter a school building without proof of vaccination and without completing a consent-to-test form. The only reason that has not happened is because the leaders in our city have totally surrendered to medical libertarianism. Right now, in public schools, students are required to be vaccinated for everything except COVID, the one thing that's spreading like wildfire in the city.

Sean: As a pediatric emergency room nurse, mandating vaccines and testing for students is a no-brainer. But I also think it’s important to point out that both the Trump and Biden administrations have avoided a comprehensive approach to managing the pandemic and instead focus solely on vaccination. Vaccination is a crucial part of addressing COVID, but a vaccination-only policy is going to fail. There has to be mass testing and contact tracing, universal access to high-filtration masks, strong ventilation and filtration systems in buildings, and remote work. 

Kelley: Obviously vaccines should be prioritized, we need universal vaccination, but that can and should happen in conjunction with building all the other pieces of a strong public health infrastructure. Every day I have patients who are vaccinated and did not know that they can still get COVID. They think the vaccine didn’t work, which is not true. The vaccine is protecting them from dying. But that reflects how badly the CDC has failed in informing the public. That failure combined with incoherent and dangerous guidance—like recommending that nurses wear bandanas at the start of the pandemic—has only helped to fuel conspiracy theories. 

Chris: That brings us to the CDC’s most recent guidance, which reduced the time an infected vaccinated person needs to be quarantined from ten to five days with no testing requirement to return to work. Not only do you not have to test, but the CDC and Fauci are explicitly saying that if after five days you are still shedding enough of the virus to test positive on a rapid test, then you should still return to work. So on the one hand, city officials are saying ‘tests are great and we should use them to keep schools open,’ while on the other the CDC is saying ‘tests don’t matter, just get to work,’ and Omicron is possibly even bypassing rapid tests. How does the public not lose trust in these institutions and these leaders?

Jia: Contradictory policies are what happens when you prioritize not disrupting the economy over doing what is needed to save lives. This way business can continue as usual and there is no enhanced unemployment, no guaranteed sick leave, no rent relief, and no student loan relief. When everything shut down, everyone was in the same boat and suddenly we saw what was possible when all of our country’s wealth was redirected towards meeting our collective needs. 

Kevin: What the government has done is pull out all the supports that were in the place with one hand while pushing people back into the workplace to risk their health and safety with the other. The CDC and Fauci have merged labor discipline with public health policy.

Kelley: Currently, the CDC says if you are vaccinated and exposed to a confirmed case of Covid you should just keep going to work. The CDC advises the public against high filtration masks such as N95s. The CDC has not updated the definition of “fully vaccinated” to include booster shots. Employers are happy to trumpet that they are following CDC guidelines because they are so insufficient and require so little. At this point, I don’t know any nurses who will stand up for CDC guidelines. It’s clear that their intent is not to protect the public’s health, it’s just to get people back to work. Their policy is now to literally work sick. It’s out there in the open.

Chris: The House of Labor does not appear to have a vision for getting us out of the pandemic that is clear and distinct from that of the Democrats and the bosses. What is the pandemic response that the labor movement should be uniting behind and fighting for?

Kevin: [UFT president] Michael Mulgrew's response to New York City’s new testing plan was, ‘this sounds great.’ There was a long profile of Randi Weingarten in the New York Times talking about how she's a champion of keeping schools open in the pandemic. So the response from our union’s leadership has been nonexistent. This crisis should result in labor putting ambitious, transformative demands on the table. But if we are waiting for union leadership to do it, it is not going to happen.

Jia: Like me, many members see our union leadership as another arm of the government. That mistrust could be an opportunity to band together in our union and across unions to transform our own locals from the bottom-up. We can’t unite and fight and fight for a shared vision without first putting an end to bureaucratic business unionism that functions as an arm of the bosses. That means building dissident caucus and uniting together the Labor Notes wing of the labor movement. 

Kelley: Winning anything is going to require that we reclaim the power of the strike. To do that we have to eliminate the martyrdom complex in nursing and education, both of which are female dominated professions. Concern for kids and patients is weaponized by the bosses to keep us from being able to effectively fight. The more patients that a nurse has, statistically, the more likely those patients are to die. That is a fact. The hospital and policy makers know this. Rather than doing what we need to fund our health system so we can hire and retain more nurses, employers choose to manipulate us. "You should come work an extra shift because we don't have enough nurses. Come help your colleagues. Your patients need you." On top of that, we have the Taylor Law, which makes unions afraid to strike. All of that might make striking difficult and stressful in the short term, but nothing will change in the long term if we aren’t willing to take risks and be more militant. 

Sean: We need to train hundreds-of-thousands of more healthcare and education workers in this country to stem current shortfalls, but nothing is happening that is close to the scale that is needed. So I agree with Kelley and would add that we need a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mentality when it comes to workplace fights. The New Deal came on the heels of massive strike waves in our country, including three general strikes. It’s not clear that every action is going to be successful, but we have to start being bold enough to act and we have to start coordinating those actions together across unions and across industries through networks like Labor Notes and DSA. The demands are the easy part, but first we need to cohere the anger and desperation that exists out there into action. 

Chris: It’s worrying to see a growing chorus on the Left starting to carry the boss’s water when discussing how we should be responding to the pandemic by using the logic of individual risk assessment rather than focusing on the common good. People are arguing, ‘you're boosted, your risks are really low as it is, you just need to go about living your life, everyone is going to get it.’ What do you have to say to people on the Left who are starting to cave to COVID fatigue?

Jia: I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement, which I think has really elevated public understanding of systemic racism and the need to break down white supremacy at the institutional level. In both the Water Is Life and BLM movements, we see how struggles can be rooted in a vision of communities as spaces where we take care of each other. We also see that when teachers center their strikes around the schools our students deserve. Community care as a source of struggle runs counter to the culture of individualism in the United States.

Kevin: There is an unwillingness to confront reality because a systemic collapse can only be averted by systemic change and many don't think that's possible. Absent the hope of collective action, all people are left with is individualism. If you don’t see a way to stop the pandemic, then the default is to just vaccinate yourself and hope for the best. It’s also not hard to see how if you can’t punch up at the people who are making the policy choices that have resulted in hundreds-of-thousands of deaths, you instead start to fixate on scolding the unvaccinated or people who don't wear masks properly. We start projecting our anger and insecurity on to people with no power. 

Kelley: People can try to put their heads down and pretend that what is happening won't affect them, but at some point everyone is going to have to go to the hospital. Our families and friends will have to go to the hospital. And then you will be reliant on a system that has completely broken down. We can’t just cede ground to the rightwing by not acknowledging reality and refusing to address it collectively. 

Sean: It is connected to powerlessness. If we don’t have a movement powerful enough to go up against the health insurance industry, then Medicare for All drops off the table. We aren’t strong enough to take on the fossil fuel industry, so climate change is just overwhelming. The same is true for the pandemic and COVID response. But we’ve all seen how movements can rapidly build enough power to center working class voices and demands in national discussions. That is exactly what happened in April 2020, when rank-and-file nurses in NYC were leading a national fight to demand PPE be prioritized over hospital profits. We took actions across our hospitals and suddenly everybody wanted to know what we had to say. Kelley was on 60 minutes. We can reach that moment again, but staving off collapse and winning a transformative political agenda starts with organizing in the workplace.

Chris Brooks is a labor journalist and currently serves as the Field Director at the NewsGuild of New York. You can follow him on Twitter @chactivist.