THOSE WHO SAY that nurses should not strike have got something right. Two things, actually. First, nurses are skilled workers who embody a fundamental, transformative, and often life-saving care. The idea of such folk striking is deeply dissonant. And second, they should have received a better pay offer ages ago.
Nurses embody a certain kind of personhood: a person whose work is entirely, physically, for another person. This skilled work involves attentiveness, patience, kindness, often under extraordinary circumstances.
Those attended by a nurse do not know where they were, or what they were doing, five minutes ago. The person who is checking your heart-rate may just have been present at another’s death, or another’s birth.
As someone who also works in a skilled profession – university teaching – that also embodies this kind of personhood, I view with admiration the excellent work of another professional. Death and birth are rarer among students than among those in hospital, but anyone who has been in class as long as I have probably has some relevant experience.
The most disappointing religiously inflected thing to say about nurses is that they are angels. They are not. It’s better, today, to say that nurses are people with housing, heating, and food bills.
Angels do not need to eat, to keep warm, to sleep. You don’t need to pay angels. I am trying to think of a single time, in my religious tradition, where someone thanks an angel. Nothing comes readily to mind. You don’t even need to thank angels, apparently. Angels do it for love. And so do many nurses. (Dogs run for fun. That does not make fun-runners dogs.)
Angels cannot learn anything: they just know. Nurses are trained, disciplined, skilled. So today, when nurses are campaigning for better pay and conditions, if someone tells you that they are angels, say: Angels with skills! Angels with bills!
© Nicholas Adams is Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Birmingham. Dr Adams’ latest Ekklesia articles can be viewed here. Previous contributions are archived here. (He has been active in support of his own trade union, the UCU.)