In a few weeks, it will be two years since the first covid lockdown. The applause of solidarity on the balconies, the genuine interest in the working conditions of health care workers has largely disappeared.
However, it is they (and not only they) who are bearing the brunt of the pandemic, and this under undignified working conditions. Hospital workers in North Rhine-Westphalia [NRW : Düsseldorf, Cologne…] are now opposing this situation by launching the campaign « Notruf NRW » [« NRW Distress Signal »] and issuing an ultimatum to the state government, which must respond within 100 days. The central demand is for mandatory staffing in all areas. « It is not just about care. Hospital work is a team effort », explains Katharina Wesenick. In North Rhine-Westphalia, she is head of the health, social affairs, education and research department of the Verdi trade union. She is one of the negotiators in the current contractual battle between the state-owned university hospitals and the state government.
« All hospital professions must be adequately staffed and well paid » says Katharina Wesenick. « What is the point if, in the end, I have enough carers near the bed, but the patient can’t get physiotherapy or the cleaner is absent ? » While many German media are conducting a false debate on whether compulsory vaccination could alleviate the shortage of personnel in the care sector, the fact that this shortage has long been a reality, due to privatisation, industrialisation of the health system, lump- sum payments and cost-cutting measures – and that the trend is continuing – is once again being overlooked. Katharina Wesenick says : « We are not facing a shortage of staff, but an increased departure of professionals caused by health policy. The policy is abandoning health workers and people in need of care. Not even the coronavirus could change that. »
She knows how easy the solution would be : « If the state government decided to legislate for proper staffing, 200,000 carers who are currently giving up because of the working conditions could return. The problem of people leaving the profession is already beginning with the professional training : « One in four leaves the profession permanently because the conditions are not acceptable. » The health care workers of the NRW hospital movement are now taking matters into their own hands. Last week, 700 employees decided to issue an ultimatum to employers and state politicians at two preparatory conferences for the initiative. Shortly afterwards, the employees of the six university hospitals in North Rhine-Westphalia, namely Aachen, Münster, Bonn, Cologne, Düsseldorf and Essen, publicly announced the same ultimatum.
They are now fighting together for a compulsory staff allocation key, like the one recently achieved in Berlin at the state-owned hospitals Charité and Vivantes. At the end of summer 2021, the employees of the large municipal hospitals Charité and Vivantes went on strike for several weeks to obtain better working conditions [see article published on the alencontre website dated 14 September 2021]. Like their colleagues in Berlin, the employees of the hospitals in North Rhine-Westphalia are determined to fight.
The ultimatum in North Rhine-Westphalia expires on 1st May 2022. After this date, the employees will also be ready to strike. Colleagues in North Rhine-Westphalia have already proved in the past that they can take such action. The hospital movement, which is now well organised throughout Germany, is one of the most effective strike movements against austerity and neo-liberalism – and it regularly receives international recognition  for this.
 Information and opportunities for this movement can be found at : https://notruf- entlastungnrw.de/.
28 January 2022
Translation (engl) : Patrick Le Tréhondat