Today I will write about something I most likely should have covered about three months ago when a humble nurse from the Péterfy Hospital in Budapest decided to take things into her own hands.
It is a well-known fact that there is a shortage of nurses due to the very low wages and the resultant emigration of hundreds of nurses every year. Therefore, nurses must work overtime. But hospital administrators, strapped for funds, regularly withhold money allocated for overtime. The nurses who desperately need the extra money earned this way often don’t get paid for months on end. One of these nurses was Mária Sándor, who decided to protest not just her own low salary and unpaid overtime pay but also the miserable working conditions that exist in Hungarian hospitals. She is a soft spoken but fearless and resolute person who has done more to call attention to the plight of Hungarian healthcare workers than the Hungarian Medical Association, the Association of Hospital Employees, and the largest trade union of hospital workers combined.
Mária Sándor seems to me a sophisticated activist who instinctively knows how to call public attention to her cause. She started off by giving an interview to RTL Klub in which she complained about the non-payment of overtime. Zoltán Balog’s ministry, however, found everything to be in order; she had no reason to complain. It was at this point that Sándor decided to stage a one-woman demonstration. She appeared in a black uniform instead of the usual white to signify the funereal state of Hungarian healthcare. Her superior ordered her to change, which she did. That was on April 18, and although she still works at the same hospital Mária Sándor has not abandoned her fight. She simply refuses to give up, although there is considerable pressure on her to quit. Her protest within the walls of her hospital has since spread to the streets.
Why does a single nurse have to start such a protest movement? The answer is simple: none of the organizations that allegedly represent her and her colleagues does much for them. There are two unions in the sector but only one, MSZ EDDSZ led by Ágnes Cser, is entitled to negotiate with the government, ostensibly because it is larger than the Független Egészségügyi Szakszervezet (Independent Union of Healthcare Workers / FESZ). I suspect it is not a negligible consideration that Ágnes Cser nowadays is not the fierce fighter for the rights of her union’s membership that she was during the socialist-liberal years. The third organization that is supposed to represent healthcare workers is the Magyar Egészségügyi Szakdolgozói Kamara (Hungarian Association of Professional Healthcare Workers / ESZK), which is a professional association similar to those that exist in other professions, like the medical association of doctors or the association of lawyers. Ágnes Cser refused to support the demonstrations organized by FESZ and ESZK in May, claiming that she was in the middle of wage negotiations and one doesn’t demonstrate while negotiating. The demonstrators turned their backs on her and began whistling, a sign of strong disapproval.
While a healthcare worker can decide whether she/he wants to join a trade union, membership in the “kamara” is compulsory by virtue of a law passed by parliament in 2010 and effective as of April 1, 2011, which unfortunately wasn’t an April’s Fool joke. Surely, the poorly paid nurses were not exactly thrilled to pay a monthly fee, which ESZK apparently tried to keep low.
The current president of the association is Dr. Zoltán Balogh, not to be confused with Zoltán Balog, the head of EMMI, the ministry in charge of healthcare. At one point Mária Sándor in an interview on ATV told Olga Kálmán that an official of the association approached her after her interview with RTL Klub and asked her to join “their team” but that she should be “opportunistic” (megalkuvó). Of course, it is possible that what she actually meant was “ready to compromise,” but given the attitude of the association’s president toward the present government I wouldn’t be terribly surprised that the word “opportunistic” was actually used. How fiercely this association under the leadership of Balogh is fighting for the rights of ESZK’s members should be evident to anyone who reads the servile letter he sent to Viktor Orbán right after the election of 2014 in the name of the association. “Allow me in my own name and in the name of the more than 100,000 members of our association to express my best wishes to you on the occasion of your repeated re-election. I wish you and your co-leaders the best of health to responsibly govern our homeland, Hungary, and to successfully continue the endeavors you began earlier. In the name of the leadership of our organization allow me to offer our cooperation, our professional expertise, and our public support for the successful achievement of your future goals.” He proudly displayed this letter on ESZK’s website.
After reading this fawning letter by Balogh, I wasn’t terribly surprised to hear that, although Mária Sándor hasn’t appeared in the news at all since late May, two days ago she received a letter from the Zala County Ethical Committee of ESZK. Zoltán Balogh had initiated an investigation of her conduct because “she has many times transgressed the regulations of the ethical code of the association.” Why in Zala County in the far southwest corner in the country when Sándor works in Budapest? I guess for the same reason Tünde Hagyó, the head of the Judicial Office, picked courts in other cities for political cases, in the hope of verdicts favorable to the prosecution.
Mária Sándor, who is by now quite media savvy, immediately contacted several media outlets, and her name resurfaced in the news. A day later, it was all over. Zoltán Balogh decided to drop the charges. When asked by Olga Kálmán why he decided to bring charges against Mária Sándor, his feeble answer was that he and his family had received death threats and that “as a father of three [he] couldn’t risk waiting until someone actually carries out the threat.”
Many people are certain that pressure was put on Balogh to silence the troublemaker and that perhaps the ukase came from the ministry of human resources. I find that unlikely, however, because the undersecretary in charge of healthcare, Gábor Zombor, assured Sándor of his support in case she is being unfairly treated. I agree with Zsuzsanna Körmendy of Magyar Nemzet who thinks that the reason for Balogh’s action was the “very uncomfortable question that if a single nurse can start such a large movement then what is the association good for?” Indeed. It’s “good for” collecting monthly dues for a compulsory membership in a useless association that cooperates with the government to the fullest. Is it any wonder that nothing has happened to improve the lot of healthcare workers?