In June, President Obama told a meeting of delegates of the American Nurses Association that “Nurses are the beating heart of our healthcare system.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to working conditions and cuts, nurses across the country have more and more become the bleeding heart of our healthcare system. In early October, a snapshot of this reality could be seen at the largest hospital in the nation’s capital. Nearly 1,600 registered nurses at the Washington Hospital Center (WHC) voted overwhelming to affiliate with National Nurses United (NNU), the largest nurses’ union in the country. Formerly members of the independent organization Nurses United of the National Capital Region, 1,121 nurses among a turnout of 1,190 voted in favor of joining NNU.
Tense relations between the nurses and hospital management were the backdrop to the NNU election victory. Hospital executives have taken an increasingly combative stance against the nurses’ union in their efforts to cut costs.
Nurses hope that the new affiliation with a stronger national union will not only give the nurses more power at the bargaining table to negotiate a fair contract, but also the extra muscle to reverse the hospital’s latest attacks.
A week before the NNU affiliation vote, the hospital unilaterally cut take-home pay for most of the nurses. The imposed takeaway, which includes cuts in shift pay for evenings, nights and weekends, resembles similarly harsh takeaways in management’s last contract proposal which 98 percent of the nurses voted against. The nurses have been working without a contract since June.
While WHC management has tried to push through severe wage cuts, the nurses’ union has pointed out that the hospital – which is run by a $3.8 billion non-profit called MedStar Health – has maintained healthy margins. MedStar Health’s CEO makes an average of $2.7 million a year.
The hospital has been on the warpath against the nurses, particularly over the past year as it has sought to intimate and break their union. The hostile atmosphere was set by management ahead of contract negotiations earlier in the year when WHC terminated 18 nurses in March for not reporting to work during the biggest blizzard to hit Washington, DC in more than 70 years.
Since the firings, nine of the 18 nurses were reinstated following an investigation. But nurses continued to stand in solidarity with each other. The union filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge in July, citing the firings as a violation of the hospital’s snow emergency policy.
With its most recent victory in DC, the National Nurses Union is building on its membership of more than 155,000 RNs across the country. NNU is a new national formation created last December with the merger of the several smaller and largely state-based unions.
But now WHC nurses have larger forces backing their efforts to win a decent contract. Their victory will be a victory not just for NNU, but for the labor movement as a whole and for all those at the heart of healthcare: the nurses battling for their patients on the frontlines of a profit-driven system.
Title : American Nurses Seek Support in National Nurse=92s United Union
Author: Brian Tierney
Publication: Counterpunch, November 1, 2010
Student researcher: Amanda Newhall, Sonoma State University
Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips, Sonoma State University