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With negotiations stalled, striking nurses at Washington Hospital Center today took to Irving Street NW, picketing the region’s largest hospital.

Wearing red scrubs, the color of National Nurses United, several hundred protesters held signs and chanted slogans, angry over a cut in pay and what they say is dangerous understaffing.

“They [hospital officials] need to negotiate with us [for] safe patient care in the contract,” said Jill Furillo, a registered nurse and the national bargaining director for NNU. “Management comes and goes but the registered nurses are the lifeblood of this hospital.”

Furillo also had strong words for an official policy which keeps any nurse on strike from returning to work until next Wednesday.

Although nurses only planned a one-day strike, administrators at Washington Hospital Center intend to bar them from work until next Wednesday because the hospital must pay replacement nurses for a full 60 hours of work.

“It’s a draconian move,” Furillo said. “The hospital has decided to attack the registered nurses and lock them out of the hospital.”

Furillo was supporting a group of about 20 nurses picketing inside the hospital campus. “We negotiated with them that we can have 20 people inside the grounds,” she explained. The rest of the nurses were relegated to picketing an entrance outside the hospital gates.

As she marched outside the Irving Street gates, registered nurse Peggy Dinkel said she’s not just looking to keep her pay intact.

“They say it’s about the money, but it’s not about the money,” Dinkel said. “It’s about safety, staffing, and driving recruitment.”

Dinkel also had strong words for the hospital’s decision to keep striking nurses from returning to the job until Wednesday.

“I’m losing four shifts, but I wish I could lose five,” she said. “I’m ready for the sacrifices that need to be made.”

Addressing the assembled crowd at noon, NNU Co-President Karen Higgins said that she was proud to stand with the Washington Hospital Center nurses.

“You people are awesome,” Higgins says. “You are our heroes. Stand the line and stand it strong… we’ll be here as long as it takes to show them patients come first.”

Those on the picket line held signs and wore T-shirts promoting slogans like “Nurses United Plus Fair Contracts Equals Safe Care” and “Washington Hospital Center: Put Patients Before Profits.” They also compared themselves to other protests happening worldwide.

“We are Wisconsin,” went one shouted slogan. “We are Egypt. We are Libya. Fighting for our rights. Fighting for our families.”

Other union supporters joined the protest as well, including members of the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters.

One man, leading the crowd in a chant, invoked God: “We have someone up there with us. With he or she on our side, the hospital center is toast.”

Vicki Carroll, a registered nurse since 1982, said she agrees. “This whole day is reminiscent of David and Goliath,” she said. “What we want is a contract that respects nurses for their experience.”

“We’re fighting for a contract that will help protect us as nurses,” she continued. “We want a hospital that protects senior nurses… we want a fair deal that respects our rights and helps us recruit the best talent.”

Carroll said she thinks the nurses are entitled to such an arrangement. But later, Carroll decided her David and Goliath comparison didn’t quite fit. “We’re more like a sleeping giant,” she explained. “But now we’re awake. We’re not going to sleep anymore.”

“We deserve it,” Carroll said. “It’s like L’Oréal—we’re worth it.”

Photos by William F. Zeman