Nurses’ musical builds solidarity and fun

creativeorganizing_nursesby Leah Samuel

(From the August 2000 edition of Labor Notes)

Imagine a band of nurses in funny costumes bursting into a politicians’ meeting and launching into raucous song–about their working conditions, their wages, and their bosses. It would be an attention-grabbing way of bringing attention to the problems nurses face in health care, and what can be done about them.

Hurl, Hemorrhage, Heal–The Nurses’ Musical has proven that when it comes to getting working nurses’ message out, musical theater can more effective and exciting than leafleting or picketing.

“The conventional things work, but not as well,” said Maxine Armstrong, treasurer of the 26,000-member British Columbia Nurses Union.

In the spring of 1999, the union’s general council decided that the union needed a creative campaign leading up to bargaining in 2001. The union had done previous campaigns around nursing issues, such as the “Some Cuts Don’t Heal” effort, which challenged reductions in nursing jobs and wages.

But BCNU chose a different focus this time.

“We thought the theme should be around valuing nurses’ work, not just in terms of money, but in terms of the kind of work we do,” said one of the show’s organizers. “It also uplifts the nurses’ spirits, and is a way of reaching the public and engaging the membership.”

The union started with worksite-based campaigns.

“We looked at what nurses do,” said the organizer. “Like how much time is spent on non-nursing duties, like answering the phone or sending faxes.” The union also focused on the nurse shortage in Canadian hospitals, where the average age for nurses is 47.

Next, the union needed to put together a show that would highlight those issues. At the BCNU convention, there were storytelling workshops. In addition, union officers and organizers traveled to the worksites again to sit in on meetings and create storytelling circles. They listened as people talked about why they became nurses and what work was like.


Then they needed performers. The union thought of hiring professional actors, but when it put out the call for auditions, it found a lot of talent among the membership.

Once assembled, the seven-member cast and their director put together a collection of songs and choreography. After three weeks of rehearsal, Hurl, Hemorrhage, Heal went on the road.

The show was performed 23 times across British Columbia during three weeks in April and May. The all-nurse cast performed for other nurses, retirees, and politicians and in community centers, schools, and yes, even theaters.

The songs the nurses perform tell of the nursing life and the need for better wages and working conditions. There are also tunes to inspire pride in the profession. An inspiring favorite is a feisty anthem urging the Canadian government to provide better wages for nurses and to hire more of them:

Money can’t buy everything, it’s true
Tell me that when you’re turning blue
I want some money. That’s what I want.
I want money.

I’ve quit the night shift, that is a fact.
Time and a half, you might get me back.
I want some money. That’s what I want.
I want money.

Keep on treating me the way you do.
I won’t be here when it’s time for you.
I want some money. That’s what I want.
I want money.


BCNU’s singing nurses once got an unexpected opportunity to perform this number. While traveling, they discovered that British Columbia Premier Ujjal Donsanjh was holding a breakfast meeting in their hotel. So they ran in, sang their song, and then lobbied the premier to support a substantial pay increase in the next contract.

Reaching out for support went along with every performance. On the back of the show’s program, the BCNU’s “Programme for Change” urged audiences to push their political representatives to support the nurses.

Each performance of the traveling show also received a lot of press attention. “It got the media to highlight our problems, which is like free advertising,” said Armstrong. “This is really different for us, but it really worked.”

The union hopes to do some other activity as negotiations get closer. Armstrong says the Hurl, Hemorrhage, Heal experience is encouraging.

“We now know that we have a core of nurses who have skills in the arts, and who believe in the power of the art of social change,” she said.