-Italy’s nurses go on strike

(VERSIONE ITALIANA) Among the countless popular mobilizations that are taking place in Italy during this second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic, there is one nobody seems to care about, the struggle of nurses to obtain better working conditions.

And yet after the difficult months of the first lockdown, nurses had become a symbol for the entire country, the images of their faces bearing the marks of fatigue and masks pictured on magazine covers, wall paintings and countless Facebook posts. During a crisis that laid bare the importance of healthcare systems and of the people who work in them, nurses have been celebrated as “heroes” and “angels”, struggling on the “frontlines” of the “war against the virus”.

One would have expected these words to be followed by concrete measures to support a category whose work had proved so essential, also in light of the inevitable return of the pandemic in the fall, but this has not happened, and on the 2nd of November the nurses went on strike, in the midsts of a second wave of Coronavirus cases and with the hospitals already under strain by the growing number of patients. “We didn’t want to do this strike”, I was told by Mario De Santis, the regional coordinator for Campania of Nursing Up, the nurses’ trade union that called the strike, “we were well aware of what it would have caused, with the closure of those few operating rooms and day hospitals that are still open. But they didn’t even try to stop us, displaying the arrogance of someone that either doesn’t value us, or simply doesn’t care about anything”.

In March, nurses were called upon to save the country, “but as soon as the epidemiological indexes returned to manageable levels, we went back to the way things were before: they closed the Covid hospitals, and they even fired the nurses they had hired to deal with the emergency”. The Nursing Up trade union mobilized as soon as the early days of June, with a series of flashmobs in several Italian cities from North to South, then with a demonstration in Milan on the 4th of July, and then with a national demonstration in Rome, on the 15th of October, which saw more than 2,000 nurses take part and the announcement of this strike.

With the slogan #notlikebefore, specific demands were brought forward to improve the working conditions of Italy’s nurses, who are among the least paid in Europe even if they have one of the highest levels of training. “We didn’t even ask to be paid as our European colleagues”, De Santis continued, “but we got absolutely no answers from the government. A few days before the demonstration in Rome the minister of health Speranza met a delegation from our trade union, and he simply congratulated himself on what he had done, without announcing any practical measure”.

The first and main of the nurses’ demands is quite symbolic both of their situation and of the reason for which this situation does not improve: “we want to have our own contract, separated from the compartment.” In terms of work contracts, the vast and variegated world of Italian healthcare is divided into four categories: the medical and veterinary management, the administration, the health management, and then there is the compartment. “The compartment is a huge thing, which goes from nurses with two university degrees all the way to custodians and porters”. In such a vast sector that gathers experiences, skills and functions that are very different from one another, “it is extremely difficult to bring our expertise and our specific working conditions into the negotiations”.

And yet the separation of nurses from the compartment has already been sanctioned by several laws, which have not been implemented yet. “The large trade unions, CGIL, CISL and UIL, which are not professional unions, never wanted their implementation, but actually opposed it. For these trade unions there is no difference between a nurse with two degrees and someone who mows the lawn, and this is because of their history, and of their statutory and philosophical structure. For these trade unions there are no professionals, only workers”. At the same time, out of some 620.000 people working in the Italian public healthcare system, more than half are nurses: “we are talking about 380.000 professionals, and this too big a slice of the cake to loose control over it, and be left only with doormen and gardeners”. This has led to Italy’s nurses being paid up to 1.200 euros per month less than their European colleagues, and to the establishment of an autonomous trade union such as Nursing Up.

After the shock caused by the explosion of the pandemic last winter, much has been said about the famous “Covid bonus”, the monetary compensation for the super-human efforts fielded by the nurses. “Besides the fact that many haven’t received it yet, as for example many nurses in Napoli, I say that had they given us a medal for civil valour made of tin we would have been much happier. 1.100 euros before taxes, which in the end means less than 700 euros, for people who have risked and still risk their life are a ridiculous tip which could have been avoided. It was not what we asked for, and it wasn’t even given to everybody!”

As with many aspects of this pandemic and the way we are managing it, the situation in Campania is especially critical also from the standpoint of nurses. “In this region we lack more than 12.000 units. While other regions have on average 17 nurses per 1000 inhabitants, here in Campania we have 6, with a population that is quite old”.

There are many causes for this dismal situation, but the main one is the “re-payment plan”, the spending cuts on healthcare imposed in 2007 to what at the time were known as “rogue regions”, those in which decades of waste and corruption had led to the accumulation of billions in debt. “The regional government has re-paid those debt, and it took almost twelve years, with a hiring freeze, no new investments, a race to the bottom in contracts… the worst of the worst. In the end the thieves have stolen what they stole and then they left, and the debts fell on the population”.

Nothing seems to have changed with the pandemic: the nurses hired to deal with it have been given short-term contracts, and find themselves facing a dangerous job knowing that they will be fired as soon as possible. “In the Cardarelli hospital out of 180 selected nurses, only twelve have taken the job. And it’s logical: nobody would accept to risk their life knowing that they will almost certainly fired in December. And we are not talking about additional resources to deal with an emergency, we are short of almost 70.000 nurses all across Italy, besides the pandemic”. All of this leads many nurses to bring their skills and education abroad, in Germany and in the United Kingdom, “while we don’t pay them enough and then we also fire them. Just like we do with researchers”.

As is inevitable, the moral among nurses is extremely low, with many fearing what will come next. “While the first wave took us by surprise, now we are really afraid of the way it is being managed. Now they want to turn the San Giovanni Bosco hospital into a Covid hospital in ten days, a hospital that was already run-down and under stress before. This means to do things only on paper, and to put red tape in the middle of a corridor to say that the right side is clean and the right side is for infected people. To convert a hospital in this manner is a really scary thing. Most of the nurses are practically resigned to their fate, and it’s only the 2nd of November”.

published on Napoli Monitor

illustration by ottoeffe