By now, nurses in bright red scrubs are a familiar sight at rallies in Washington, D.C., New York City, and at Occupy protests around the country. National Nurses United (NNU), a union representing registered nurses, is a major, visible force in the growing movements challenging corporate power.
Several months before the birth of the Occupy movement, they were already mobilizing thousands of their members to speak out against Wall Street. One of their key demands is a financial transaction tax: a small fee on each trade of stocks, derivatives, bonds, and other financial instruments, which could generate massive revenues while discouraging high-frequency speculative trading.
This may surprise some Americans whose image of the nursing profession has been formed by TV medical dramas. (Wikipedia lists 70 such programs in the United States and Canada since the 1950s.) The General Hospital drama queens aside, TV nurses haven’t been completely lacking in the social justice department. ER’s Carol Hathaway shielded her nursing staff from pompous M.D.s. “Hot Lips” Houlihan became a fighter for women’s rights in the male world of the M*A*S*H hospital tent. But do you recall a single scene in which nurses took to the streets, much less took on a force like Wall Street?
NNU Executive Director Rose Anne DeMoro says there’s a simple reason registered nurses have embraced a “Tax Wall Street” campaign: “The big banks, investment firms, and other financial institutions, which ruined the economy with trillion-dollar trades on people’s homes and pensions and similar reckless gambling, should pay for the recovery.”
NNU members have gotten an up-close view of just how ruined our economy really is from hospital bedsides, where they are seeing increases in stress-induced ailments, as well as from first aid stations they set up at Occupy encampments. Their impression is that the vast majority of protesters do not have health insurance, and those who visited their first aid stations frequently said it was the first time they’d talked to a health care provider in years. Nurse activist Maureen Cruise says, “Many of them were comforted just to have nurses pay attention to them and have their basic worth as human beings affirmed.”
At rallies, the union’s placards play on the idea of a sick economy with the slogan “Heal America—Tax Wall Street.”
In November 2011, NNU sent a delegation to France to join international allies, including nurses from other countries, to push world leaders gathered for the G-20 summit to take action on the issue. The debate over financial transactions taxes is much more advanced in Europe, where it is often dubbed a “Robin Hood Tax.”
Europe is ahead on this issue in part because of more than 13 years of work by the grassroots group ATTAC— the Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens. Founded in response to a call from the editor of Le Monde diplomatique, the group now has chapters in 40 countries. During their time in France, the NNU delegation attended a massive rally organized by ATTAC France and labor and other groups.
Under pressure from increasingly broad-based activist coalitions, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have become strong supporters, and there is a distinct possibility of some grouping of European countries adopting such taxes in 2012.
As the notion of taxing Wall Street has moved into the center of international policy debates, the supporter list has grown to include an impressive array of big shots, including Bill Gates, the pope, Al Gore, Bishop Desmond Tutu, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and the archbishop of Canterbury.
These signs of progress should help build momentum in the United States. The Obama administration is not yet on board, but under the spotlight of the election campaign, the president may reconsider his position on an issue that has tremendous populist appeal.
Without grassroots pressure, however, without members of Congress hearing from their own constituents, it’s hard to imagine breaking through the polarized gridlock in Washington, D.C. That’s why NNU’s commitment to building a movement around a Wall Street tax is so critical.
Like Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, and other pioneering activist nurses, they appear to have no fear of the frontlines. And as policymakers are coming to realize, nurses can be very hard to dismiss.
Bonnie Castillo, a registered nurse and California legislative director for NNU, told me a story about one Capitol Hill lobby visit that would’ve made sassy “Hot Lips” Houlihan proud: “A member of Congress told our group to lower our expectations about the financial transactions tax. And one of our nurses replied, ‘Is that what you’d like to hear from us when we’re prepping you for surgery?’”