Despite the decade-long decline of the labor movement and the low number of unionized nurses, labor officials have used the effects of the pandemic to organize new chapters and contract negotiations for better terms and benefits. National Nurses organized seven new negotiating units last year, compared to four in 2019. The SEIU also said interest has increased.

Nurses from various unions across the country have participated in dozens of strikes and protests. National Nurses held a “day of action” Wednesday, with demonstrations in more than a dozen states and in Washington, DC, as negotiations began in hospitals owned by major systems like HCA, Sutter Health and CommonSpirit Health.

Hospitals claim that unions make public health policy during a public health emergency, saying they have no choice but to ask more of their workers. “We are in a moment of crisis that we have never seen before and we need flexibility to care for patients,” said Jan Emerson-Shea, a spokeswoman for the California Hospital Association.

At the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago, the death of two nurses from the virus helped staff strike for the first time last fall, said Paul Pater, emergency room nurse and union representative for the Illinois Nurses Association. “People really took it to heart, and it really despised the current administration at the hospital.”

In their most recent contract, the nurses there have been given provisions to ensure the hospital hires more staff and provides adequate protective equipment, Father said. “To be honest, we have only made great strides in protecting our employees.”

The hospital did not respond to requests for comment.

Some nurses remain very skeptical of union efforts, and even those who advocate an organization recognize that their options have serious limits. “I’m not sure the union is enough to get us this far,” said Mrs. McIntosh, the riverside nurse.

Many healthcare workers view vaccines as the beginning of the end of the pandemic. But large numbers – especially those who work in nursing homes and outside hospitals and tend to be more reluctant to give vaccines – refuse to be vaccinated. During a crisis that disproportionately threatens health workers with color, a recent analysis found they are receiving vaccinations well below those of their white counterparts.