Do Nurses Have an Rx for Our Ailing Economy?

They became a Chicago media sensation after they streamed into Chicago’s Daley Plaza on the morning of May 18, wearing the now familiar National Nurses United (NNU) red scrubs. Many of them had the green caps and masks you've seen in nearly every Robin Hood movie ever made. The NNU is the largest union of nurses in the USA and one of the more progressive unions in the AFL-CIO. In addition to improving working conditions for nurses, the NNU has taken on the role of trying to nurse our sick economy back to health.


Near the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, the NNU had a  stage with a large banner of a smiling nurse in a Robin Hood outfit. Next to her was another banner of Sherwood Forest itself which served as the backdrop to the speeches, skits and music. The nurses put on  quite a show, all in support of taxing Wall Street.

Before the rally officially began, hundreds of nurses arranged themselves in formation  and practiced  dance moves to their rally song "Taxing Wall Street". In good Woody Guthrie tradition they based their sly subversive lyrics on a popular tune, in this case, "Dancing in the Streets".


  “There’ll be teachers teachin’ and nurses healin’
  When we’re taxin’ Wall Street!
  This an invitation to every nation,
  A chance to make ends meet,
  When we’re taxin’ Wall Street”

As befits a nurses' event it was tightly organized and scheduled. The entire theme of the rally was to press for a financial transactions tax (FTT) on Wall Street to help fund an economic recovery for America's hard pressed working class. NNU Co-President Deborah Burger explained,"We need the money to  make sure that people can take care of themselves; so they can afford an education, make sure they have a decent place to live and can get Social Security."

 Often called a "Robin Hood Tax," the nurses’ proposed FTT would place a 0.5% tax on transactions like stocks, bonds, foreign currency bets and derivatives. It would exempt common transactions performed by working people like 401k's, mutual funds, home mortgages, ATM withdrawals and the like. Over 40 countries around the world have such a tax and we even had something similar in the USA from 1914 until 1966. 

Critics complain that a Robin Hood Tax would hurt the economy by discouraging needed investment. But much of the activity on Wall Street is pure speculation. It is Las Vegas-style casino gambling on currency fluctuations and exotic often toxic securities that do not produce needed goods and services. 

Economist Dean Baker believes a Robin Hood Tax could discourage that kind of hi-stakes nonproductive gambling, the likes of which wrecked the world economy in 2008. This diversion of private investment into more actual production combined with the public revenue generated by the Robin Hood Tax could be a substantial boost for the working class economy, which is still mired in unemployment and declining wages. 

According to NNU member Martha Kuhl, just the Robin Hood Tax alone could generate, “… as much as $350 billion—money that could be used for public services, health care, education, libraries and all other public programs.”

 But why are nurses leading this fight? Traditionally, nurses have often been portrayed as quiet obedient helpmeets of physicians and medical authorities, gliding through hospital corridors in overly elaborate starched white uniforms. 

 But there is another tradition in nursing, that of the patient advocate. 

It is not new. Florence Nightingale, who became a nurse despite fierce opposition from her British upper class family, was appalled by the casual indifference shown by the upper class British Army officers to the mostly working class wounded soldiers she treated during the Crimean War in the 1850s. 

 Exploiting her upper class connections, she went public through the London Times and helped expose the horrific state of army hospitals. She later gave public lectures, worked to improve both military and civilian hospitals and wrote Notes on Nursing, a best seller that became the basis for modern nursing.

In the past two decades, the nurse as patient advocate has become a major force. “Advocacy is a role nurses are well-suited for,” according to Janice Phillips of the University of Chicago Medical Center, “We never want to underestimate the value of our direct-care experience. We have something other people cannot speak to. We are on the front lines.”

National Nurses United is firmly in the Florence Nightingale tradition of the patient advocate who goes public. The economy is making people sick and nurses see this on a day to day basis. Janet Currie of Princeton and Erdal Tekin of Georgia State found that the foreclosure crisis is correlated to a  rise in emergency room visits and hospitalizations for hypertension, diabetes, anxiety and suicide attempts among people 20-49 years old.

NNU Co-president Deborah Burger cites the case of a 40-year old man who after going to the ER suffering a heart attack, insisted in going right back to work because he could not take time off from his temp job. With no insurance, he could not pay for the hospitalization. Nurses also report that many people cannot afford their prescribed medications, leading to even more serious health problems down the road.

Nurses themselves are affected by our sick economy. The American Holistic Nurses Association has an entire section of their web site devoted to dealing with the stresses that drive nurses out of the profession. Many of these stresses are related to short-staffing and a lack of control over their work, both of which stem from a medical system totally obsessed with profit. 

Over-worked and stressed nurses are more apt to make potentially fatal errors, the danger of which only adds to their own stress. One holistic nurse I know summed up her first few months as a hospital RN not by celebrating the art of healing, but by stating with great relief,”At least I didn’t kill anyone.”

No wonder so many nurses have unionized and are calling for a Robin Hood Tax and a fair economy.

Florence Nightingale was driven by the horrors of war to public protest, and with NATO in town the week of the NNU rally, war was on the minds of rally participants.

Students for a Democratic Society hold up an anti-war banner at the NNU rally

Judy Erickson of Oak Park Illinois was among those concerned,” Things are terribly wrong in this country and I think a good bit of the blame can be laid at the feet of NATO and the G-8 groups. I believe that peace needs to be a groundswell, a grassroots movement and that means being peaceful in your everyday lives so we can create a culture of peace.”

Vickie Kepling of Springfield, Missouri explained that she was in Chicago mostly because of the wars,“I watch the videos on YouTube and they break my heart. When I see what drones do and that innocent children are hit by those and you see them with scrap metal and stuff in their sides, it tears me up.” 

Although the NNU rally was described as a “NATO protest” by much of the media, it was far from that. The focus was the Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street, not the bloated military budget or the destruction wrought by the US military under the auspices of NATO. 

A few speakers mentioned war and militarism, but a militant stand on those issues had to wait until the May 20th anti-war rally in Grant Park and the march to Cermak Road where NATO veterans returned their medals in a deeply moving ceremony.

Organized labor and the anti-war movement do not have a particularly close relationship and even the very progressive NNU is cautious. Its initial target was the G-8, not NATO.The G-8 or Group of Eight represents the rulers of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world. 

The G-8 symbolizes the global 1%, whose policies of of economic austerity for working people cause so much heartache and suffering. The NNU is proud to be part of a global movement for a Robin Hood Tax and welcomed nurses from other nations to the rally.

The NNU has closely allied itself with the Occupy movement, showing that it is not afraid to have anti-war allies. Here in Chicago, NNU organizer Jan Rodolfo spoke eloquently at the Peoples’ Summit organized by Occupy Chicago, sharing the platform with anti-war speakers. It seems that the NNU, at least on the national level, prefers to have others make the direct link between militarism, war and our sick economy.

The NNU rally closed with Tom Morello leading an enthusiastic swaying crowd in Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Then it was back to the buses for the nurses and an impromptu march around the Loop by some of the rally participants.

Tom Morello 
Tom Morello: The Night Watchman

The Robin Hood Tax is palliative, a way to relieve the worst economic suffering of those who have been wounded by the greed and carelessness of the 1%. We will not get such a palliative by the efforts of the NNU alone, even with all its enthusiasm, creativity and organizational savvy. That will take a much stronger, more activist labor movement, one the NNU hopes to spark with its role as patient advocate for working class people.

The Robin Hood Tax would mean real improvement for our ailing economy, but it is not a cure. That lies beyond the power of the NNU and the present resources of the labor movement. A Robin Hood Tax could get us out of the ER, but a full economic recovery for the working class still remains a distant and uncertain goal.

Nurses dance to "Taxin' Wall Street"




Sources Consulted

Tying Health Problems to Rise in Home Foreclosures by  S. Mitra Kalita

Make Wall Street Pay for Rebuilding the American Dream by Nicole Woo,

Time for a Main Street Contract by National Nurses United

A Sea of Robin Hoods Tell the G8, It's Time to Tax Wall Street!

A Nation Worried Sick by Deborah Burger

 Jobs and Recovery by Jobs with Justice

 The Benefits of a Financial Transactions Tax by Dean Baker

 Nurses Lead NATO Protest for `Robin Hood Tax' by David Moberg

 Holistic Stress Management for Nurses by Karen Sanders, Lucia Thornton, and Jeanne Crawford 

 Florence Nightingale from Spartacus Educational

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