While preparing to write this post I realized that I had spent far too little time on Mária Sándor’s struggle to improve the lot of nurses and other hospital employees whose salary is so low that their take-home pay is insufficient to keep body and soul together. She began her crusade almost a year ago. By the end of 2015 she was named “Person of the Year” by RTL Klub, Hungary’s largest commercial television station. The day before, she received a newly established award called “Respect,” given out by Népszabadság.
I wrote about her only once, on August 12, 2015, although she has been in the news quite frequently since. “The nurse in black,” as she has come to be known, is a symbol of courage in a country where courage is in short supply. A commentator wrote bitterly about Hungarians’ self-image as a heroic, freedom-loving people who are ready to rise against injustice whereas, in reality, there are mighty few people who have the courage to stand up and fight for their rights. He expressed his hope that there will be other brave people like Mária Sándor. Another writer actually titled his article “Cowards” when he found out that no hospital, state-owned or private, would employ Mária Sándor, although according to her superiors she was a very good nurse in the neonatal unit of the Péterfy Hospital.
In my post about Mária Sándor I described her as a “sophisticated activist who instinctively knows how to call public attention to her cause.” Her appearance at work in a black uniform was something that made her instantly famous, especially since the hospital’s reaction was to fire her on the spot. (The director later recanted.)
We have been witnessing the struggle of a single nurse because, although there are two unions allegedly representing hospital employees in addition to a newly created “professional association,” a government mandated organization to which all employees must belong, none of them has chosen to represent the interests of the grossly underpaid employees.
Mária Sándor belonged to the Független Egészségügyi Szakszervezet (Independent Union of Healthcare Workers/FESZ) as opposed to the even more opportunistic MS EDDSZ, whose leader, Ágnes Cser, was active only when there was a socialist-liberal government in place. And, of course, she belonged to the Magyar Egészségügyi Szakdolgozói Kamara (Hungarian Association of Professional Healthcare Workers/MESZK) because she had no choice. The very first thing the president of MESZK did was to initiate an investigation into Sándor’s conduct because “she has many times transgressed the regulations of the ethical code of the association.” Mária Sándor immediately contacted several media outlets, and MESZK subsequently withdrew the investigation planned against her.
With the storm over MESZK’s handling of the Sándor case, it was again “the nurse in black’s” move. She was so appalled by what the association, which is supposed to represent her, did that she decided to tender her resignation. But life isn’t so simple in Hungary. She could not practice her chosen profession unless she was a member of the government-created professional association. By quitting MESZK, Sándor gave up not only her job at Péterfy but all possibilities of working as a nurse, at least in state-owned hospitals. She was ready to take a job as an aid in a home for the elderly for about 40,000 ft. take-home pay. As she said, “I don’t want to be in the service of this system.” Her union, FESZ, simply expelled her because the leadership considered her methods “too radical.”
Soon enough she and some brave souls began a series of street demonstrations which, though they didn’t result in large crowds, prompted a few remarkable encounters. The best example was one between Mária Sándor and the leaders of FESZ, her former union. The union organized a “loyal stroll,” visiting various political parties as well as the ministry of human resources during which they passed on their proposals, which included doubling their average wage of 150,000 forints in two years. They also gave calendars to all MPs to “remind them of the difficult situation the healthcare workers are in.” It was at this point that Mária Sándor arrived with a large banner: “Hungary for Hungarian Healthcare,” the name of her new organization. That in itself managed to confuse the representatives of the official trade union, but what added to their confusion was that Tímea Szabó, co-chair of Párbeszéd Magyarországért (Dialogue), arrived in the same kind of black T-shirt worn by Mária Sándor on that fateful day in the Péterfy Hospital. The flummoxed FESZ delegates quickly left the scene. Mária Sándor stole the show.
In Mária Sándor’s opinion Hungarian healthcare is already in ruins. In an interview in Magyar Nemzet she complained about a system in which a nurse must look after 40 to 50 patients. On January 4 on TV2’s Mokka Sándor talked about the 12,800 Hungarian nurses who are by now working abroad. She also claimed that Hungarian hospitals would need at least 20,000 more nurses. Something must be done and urgently, as she asserts time and again.
The fact that she made common cause with László Mendrey’s Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete, the more active of the two teachers’ unions, and with Andrea Varga, president of the Autonomous Territorial Trade Union, is a step in the right direction. As Mendrey says, the “goal is to reach a critical mass” instead of having individual groups representing relatively few people.” One hopeful sign is that the leaders of the “1,001 doctors against gratuity” assured their support for the teachers who started their own movement in Miskolc.
In addition, a new union of physicians was established by Tamás Dénes, who spent ten years as a specialist in Great Britain. The new group is called “Rezidensek és Szakorvosok Szakszervezete” (Trade Union of Residents and Specialists / ReSzaSz). According to Dénes, physicians must change their methods because their efforts up to this point haven’t achieved anything. The first step is to stick by the rules. For example, the law specifies the maximum number of hours a doctor can work. Physicians should refuse extra work, even for extra money. That would bring home the fact that the amount of work required simply cannot be done by the number of physicians currently in the system. But he doesn’t rule out strikes or the threat of mass quitting as weapons.
Something is certainly in the air. The question is whether the underpaid and overburdened employees in education and healthcare are sufficiently desperate and fed-up to take things into their own hands and force the Orbán government to attend to the serious problems in these fields. While apparently half a trillion forints was spent on sports since 2010, perhaps a few billion could go to the education and health of Hungarians.