June 11, 2008

The Nurse's Strike and The Hypocritical Danish State

After the American Century
[The murses strike ended shortly after I wrote this column. I doubt there was any cause and effect! The nurses scracely got any more than the original offer.]

The nurses in Denmark have now been on strike for 8 weeks. That is a long time for a nation's health care to be cut to the bone. During this time a skeleton crew of nurses have always been on duty to deal with acute cases, but more than 325,000 treatments and operations have not taken place. The waiting list grows every day.

Why has no agreement been possible? The difference between the two parties is not so large: 2.2%, spread over three years. The Danish regions, who fund hospitals, have just saved one sixth of a year's wages, because they have not been paying the nurses all this time. Saving 16% of the wages already this year ought to make it possible, with ease, to give the nurses an 0.75% addition during each of the following three years. In fact, the regional governments would seem to be coming out so far ahead after not paying wages for two months, that the millions saved could be put into an account at 5% interest that would perpetually generate more than 0.75%. In other words, the strike itself has created a fund that can pay for one third of the funds required to meet the nurses demands. The real difference left, then, is only 1.5%. If the nurses stay on strike for four more months, then they will have saved the state so much money that their salary increase would cost nothing at all. Ah, but the patients would suffer.

There is one other demand that the nurses have, which seems obviously fair and reasonable. This is that a commission be set up by the state to investigate whether nurses (most of them women) are being discriminated against in their salaries. Do men with the same level of education, who have jobs with the same level of responsibility, receive the same pay? The state's refusal to grant this demand is tantamount to an admission that such a commission will "discover" what most people already know: women are being discriminated against. Of course, the state certainly would not want to find that out, officially, because then they would have to do something about it.

Watching this strike is like seeing a car crash in slow motion. It is painful, it will end badly for most of the citizens, and it is an accident that is not inevitable but due to bad driving. The economic road conditions are excellent, as Denmark has a budget surplus, low unemployment, and a strongly positive balance of payments. There is an acute shortage of nurses in Denmark, however, because the largely female nursing staff leave for other jobs, notably in private hospitals, but also in completely different sectors of employment. They leave because the level of stress is high and the wages are not competitive. They leave because of the pressure to do extra work, to cover for the unfilled positions. And at least some leave because they do not like the way hospitals are run.

The Danish government is hypocritical in this matter, and responsible for putting the health system in peril in at least four ways.

First, the Danish government is rhetorically committed to giving women equal pay for equal work. They are also legally obligated to end discrimination. Refusing to set up a commission to study the matter is at the least immoral. Economic justice delayed is justice denied.

Second, they are strongly in favor of limiting immigration into Denmark, but nevertheless actively recruit foreign doctors and nurses to move to Denmark. Entire groups of people have been flown in from India to work in hospitals in Jutland, and last week the Danish Embassy held a special event to recruit German health professionals. There is money for expensive recruitment campaigns abroad, but not for trying to hold on to the nurses at home.

Third. One of chief claims of the current government (once) was that that they were actively reducing the waiting lists for operations. In fact, even before the strike these lists were not all being reduced enough to reach the government's proclaimed goals. This was not surprising, since there were thousands of unfilled jobs. There are not enough doctors and nurses. Now, however, the failure to get a grip on the waiting list problem can be blamed on the nurses, because they have been on strike. But the root of the problem is that there are not enough health care professionals. And that is the government's own fault.

Fourth. This is a liberal/conservative government that trumpets free markets. It is hypocritical to pretend that free markets do not affect wage levels. There are not enough nurses because the wages are too low. An honest and ideologically consistent liberal government would recognize that hospital workers exist in a labor market. Instead, they are pretending that the market can be ignored, and they have now angered what nurses they do have. In the next few years they can expect more of them to leave for other employment. Denying that free markets govern the health sector will lead to more severe problems in the future. The population is aging and the demand for care will increase, even as nurses flee the hospitals.

In short, the current Danish government, both at the regional and the national level, has shown itself to be discriminatory against women, unwilling to create a commission to deal with that problem, hypocritical about immigration, dishonest about its intentions to reduce waiting lists, and disloyal to its own liberal principles. Until they recognize that health care is not a budget line they can play with but rather a service that must be paid for in the marketplace, just so long will the Danish people suffer.

It seems that gender discrimination is so deeply ingrained in this government that its representatives are willing to violate their free market principles and literally let the citizenry die, rather than pay nurses what the market demonstrates they deserve.

The only thing more painful than the government's behavior is the spineless inactivity of the opposition. The Danish parliament is about to go on vacation, without solving this problem. effectively leaving the population unprotected. The vaunted safety net is all but gone, and they waste time and try the nation's patience with idiotic discussions of whether Muslim women can wear head scarves. Some of these women wearing scarves are nurses, but apparently they should be fired to make the hypocritical pseudo-liberal government happy.

The nurses will also soon go on vacation. But patients cannot send their endangered hearts, weak lungs, and weakened bones on vacation. They will continue to suffer and increasingly to die because the hypocritical Danish government is deeply sexist and without moral principles.