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Combative nurses’ union takes on Meg Whitman

Sacramento Bee, 7/4/10

By Jack Chang
Sacramento Bee
July 4, 2010

The California Nurses Association has taken on powerful people before, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators from both major parties, and has scored resounding wins.

In each showdown, the 86,000-person union made full use of its key advantage – the appeal of its members' professions – while pressing hard for policies that benefited nurses.

This election year, the union is putting its powers to the test as it challenges its most well-funded opponent to date, billionaire Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who is wasting no time fighting back.

That the union is leading the anti-Whitman front so far speaks volumes about its winning past and its emergence as one of the top players in California politics. In recent weeks, it has won at least as much attention as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown.

The group's increasingly visible activism also has exposed it to criticism that it's straying from its worker advocacy mission to become the Democratic Party's boisterous ground troops.

Its anti-Whitman activity has included disrupting the candidate's campaign events with chanting protesters, banner-trailing planes circling overhead and teacher Elaine Burn acting out sidewalk skits as "Queen Meg," a Whitman parody.

"Nurses in the political context have always been golden," said Democratic strategist Garry South, who negotiated with the union as a top aide to former Gov. Gray Davis. "One of the things that the CNA has to watch is that they don't get so cute or get so over the top that they turn people off."

The union's leaders say they're opposed to Whitman's pledges to streamline business and labor regulations, such as overtime and meal-and-rest break requirements. They also say they don't trust the candidate's recent support for the union's key cause: a state law requiring hospitals to maintain specific nurse-patient ratios.

"Our radar is really sensitive to anyone, whether it be Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 and now Meg Whitman in 2010, who comes forward and says we're going to get rid of meals and breaks, we are going to get rid of these regulations, we're going to lay off these public servants," said Jill Furillo, the union's Southern California director.

"Maybe we were on the ball maybe more than some of these other organizations because we've been through it."

Whitman pushes back

The Whitman campaign has acknowledged the CNA's potential by spending the past two weeks trying to undermine the union's rank-and-file support.

The campaign has mailed fliers to thousands of nurses statewide criticizing the union's spending and commissioned an internal poll showing a majority of nurses disapprove of the union's tactics.

"The nurses union has been turned into a political arm of the Democratic Party and Jerry Brown Inc. by their union bosses," said Whitman spokesman Tucker Bounds. "It is clear from research that we've done that the union bosses are not accurately reflecting the wishes of their membership and are operating exclusively on behalf of Jerry Brown Inc."

The union's political mettle has been tested repeatedly over the past 15 years since it hired union organizer Rose Ann DeMoro as its executive director in 1993 and split from the American Nurses Association two years later.

The union's membership grew from 17,000 in 1992 to 86,000 this year, with about 20,000 of its current members living outside California. The state licenses about 357,000 nurses.

The union's two political action committees spent $6.6 million in the 2005-06 election cycle and have spent about $1.8 million so far in the current cycle.

The CNA scored its first major victory in 1999 when it persuaded Gov. Gray Davis to sign the nation's first law requiring minimum staffing levels for nurses at hospitals. The state already had implemented staffing ratios in intensive-care units in 1976 when Brown was governor.

Winning Davis' support turned out to be a mere prelude to the union's battle royal with Schwarzenegger, who delayed implementation of the staffing ratios and famously said of the nurses that he was "always kicking their butts."

The CNA unleashed its fury on the governor, relentlessly disrupting his events and helping defeat government reform initiatives he championed in 2005.

"Nurses have had to make that shift because of what's happened in health care," said union spokeswoman Liz Jacobs. "The whole managed-care shift, the mergers and acquisitions, which basically put the bottom line before quality care."

The state implemented the staffing ratios in 2004, and the union has been on a roll ever since.

A show of political might

In recent months, the CNA helped squash a bill that would have required employers to report nurses convicted of misconduct to a state licensing board.

The bill received only one "yes" vote in committee – that of state Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Chino, who wrote the legislation – despite uproar sparked by a news investigation into the state's failure to discipline problem nurses.

A 2009 report by ProPublica and the Los Angeles Times found that some nurses were able to practice in California long after facing accusations of abuse or misconduct.

"They had enough political might so they killed the bill, and that was fine," Negrete McLeod said. "That's part of the political process, and I don't begrudge them their sway."

CNA co-president Geri Jenkins called the bill "flawed" because "it eliminated a nurse's right to due process," a characterization that Negrete McLeod disputed.

With Whitman, the union could find one of its top political strengths neutralized, said University of California, San Diego, political science professor Thad Kousser.

While male politicians risk appearing to beat up on a profession dominated by women, Whitman's gender could give her more room to take on the union, Kousser said.

"Meg Whitman has more of an ability to hit back with them, and she's a candidate who relishes showing her toughness, that … she can stand up to public employee unions," Kousser said.

Whitman nevertheless has moved cautiously in her fight with the CNA and taken pains to criticize the union's leadership, not the nurses themselves.

While talking to reporters this past week, Whitman said, "I am going to reach out to these nurses to make sure that all nurses know my positions and then they can make an informed decision."

Nurses interviewed at UC Davis Medical Center said they supported the union's activities, based solely on Whitman's stance on meals and breaks.

"When you're right there at 12 o'clock and are looking for one last burst of energy to get you through, those breaks are necessary," said Attila Bertalan, walking to his car after a recent shift at the hospital. "If that's what she's saying, I would definitely show up at the protests in spirit."

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