PHILADELPHIA—On May 24, workers at Red Cross blood donation centers here and across the river in southern New Jersey went on strike. They are striking over their health care as well as unsafe conditions, both for the workers and for the blood they collect. The Health Professional and Allied Employees Local 5103 strike is the latest in a series that have drawn attention to the Red Cross’s training and staffing practices.
The American Red Cross, which brings in over $2 billion annually through its blood services division, has made draconian cuts to staff and training budgets at donation centers and blood drives. It is now pressing to remove registered nurses from some mobile donation centers. Shifts run as long as 14 hours, including lengthy periods without breaks, and blood drives often take place under unsanitary conditions that can lead to contamination.
From 2003 to 2010 the FDA fined the Red Cross over $21 million for a pattern of blood safety violations. Since 1993 the Red Cross has operated under a federal consent decree that it clean up its collection practices, which has gone unheeded.
Unsanitary blood conditions are directly caused by the fast food approach to collection that the Red Cross has undertaken. Two of the main problems in blood contamination are insufficient donor screening and inadequate swabbing of the arm before the needle is injected, leading to risks of disease such as hepatitis, malaria, and syphilis. Staff and training cuts have made these dangers much more likely, and the Red Cross has compounded matters by failing to investigate the results of its mistakes.
The level of nurses has dropped significantly, and responsibility of the non-nurse workers has only increased. The lack of adequate training is made worse by high employee turnover. Donor safety is compromised by the decrease (and in the Penn-Jersey region, the threat of a total loss) of nursing staff, who have the knowledge to handle the accidents, reactions, and emergencies that can arise during blood collection. In some cases, the Red Cross has gone so far as to train mobile truck drivers as phlebotomists (technicians in drawing blood) even though they might be uncomfortable with the process.
HPAE local 5103 is hardly the first Red Cross workers’ local to go on strike. This year, over 1000 workers in California, Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, and West Virginia have been driven to strike over the same conditions, demonstrating a pattern of unsafe conditions across the country. By standing up for better job conditions, Red Cross workers are also fighting for better public health practices.
With storms and floods creating disasters across the nation, the Red Cross will doubtless see an influx of money in the coming weeks and months. But clearly, the time has come for the relief agency to clean up its act. Workers across the country need to stand in solidarity with Red Cross workers to improve their conditions and ensure the safety of the blood supply.
> The article above was written by Wayne Deluca and first appeared in the June 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.