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Health Care Employees RNs Adopt National Bargaining Standards

Bureau of National Affairs, 5/12/10

By Michelle Amber
Bureau of National Affairs
May 12, 2010

During National Nurses Week, registered nurses from across the country May 11 put health care employers on notice that they do not intend to sign concessionary collective bargaining agreements that are “injurious” to their patients or their profession.

Some 1,000 nurses attending the first annual National Nurses United Staff Nurse Assembly enthusiastically adopted a resolution to promote “national collective bargaining standards for all NNU contract agreements” that emphasize improvements for patients, nurses, and the nursing profession.
In introducing the resolution, NNU Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro contended that there is an “orchestrated campaign across the country by employers to lower nurses standards in their contracts” as well as replace nurses with everything they can, including technology.

“We need to tell employers it's a new day in America and registered nurses are going to stand up and not take it anymore,” DeMoro said.
NNU, which is the first national union of direct care registered nurses, was formed in December through the merger of the California Nurses Association/National Nursing Organizing Committee, the United American Nurses, and the Massachusetts Nurses Association. The union has some 150,000 members across the country.

Prior to voting on the resolution, the nurses heard from a panel of colleagues who recently have been engaged in fierce contract fights with their employers.

Patty Akin, a member of the NNU affiliate Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals said she and her colleagues engaged in a 28-day strike against Temple University Medical Center and were successful in fighting off a “gag clause” sought by the employer that would have prevented nurses from criticizing the institution in public at any time. Despite the fact that the employer hired 850 “scabs” from 42 different states and spent $20 million on the strike, at the end of the strike, 93 percent of the members were still on strike walking the picket lines, she said.
Strike Vote Scheduled in Minneapolis

Linda Hamilton, the president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, told the conference that some 12,000 nurses in the Twin Cities are scheduled to take a strike vote May 19 in their contract negotiations with six hospital systems that own 13 hospitals and they could strike June 1. The major issues are staffing and safe workplaces, she said.

If the strike occurs, it would be the largest nurses' strike ever in this country, according to MNA.

In introducing the panel, Jill Furillo, the NNU national bargaining director, said that in collective bargaining across the country nurses are seeing management proposals on the table “like we have not seen in 20 years.” The employers' goals, she said, are to take away the hard fought standards nurses have achieved through their unions, such as better staffing, higher wages, pensions, and health care benefits.

Furillo contended that health care employers are “attacking us with the same takeaways almost word for word” across the country, with the same proposals being put on the table from Philadelphia to Minneapolis to Kalamazoo, Mich. “We are seeing proposals to eliminate our unions,” she said, adding that management is hiring “union busters” to conduct the employer's campaign against units that have been organized for more than 30 years. Previously, she said, “union busters” were only hired when nurses were engaged in organizing campaigns.

“If they can extract concessions out of any one of us, then they have a foot in the door to go after all of us,” Furillo said.

According to the resolution, health care industry employers are demanding concessions in RN professional practice and patient care standards “in pursuit of a greater economic bottom line and increased control of its nurses, other staff, and patient care practices.”

National Standards Outlined

The nurses agreed that national RN standards need to be established throughout the country in order to promote the retention of experienced RNs and assist in recruitment of new nurses. Among the standards NNU affiliates will strive to achieve in all their collective bargaining contracts are:

  • enhanced staffing based on individual patient acuity with minimum, specific nurse-to-patient ratios and contract language to enforce ratio standards;
  • restrictions on unsafe floating to units where nurses are not experienced;
  • a ban on mandatory shift rotation and mandatory overtime;
  • mechanisms to contain exposure of patients and nurses to pandemics and other communicable diseases;
  • improved retirement security through defined benefit pension plans and employer-paid retiree medical benefits;
  • limits on the introduction of new technology that displaces nurses or RN professional judgment;
  • workplace safety protections to provide for health and safety for nurses; and
  • provisions that enhance and promote unity and collective strength for unionized nurses.
    The nurses also agreed that NNU affiliates will not sign concessionary agreements that undermine RN contract standards including:
  • takeaways in compensation, health and retirement benefits, or work hours or schedules;
  • two-tier plans that establish reduced pensions, lower pay, or other reduced standards for new hires;
  • merit pay agreements or other proposals that erode seniority or years of service as an RN; and
  • layoffs of RNs or displacement of RNs with other staff.

Solis Now ‘Secretary of Workplace Safety.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis told the conference that “so much has happened in the last two months” that she wants to change her title to be called the Secretary of Workplace Safety. She said that 14 people a day die at work, and more than 4 million are seriously injured. “Most of those fatalities and injuries are easily prevented,” she said, adding “this can no longer go on. We have to stop the madness.”

Solis said she is committed to making sure that workers' health and safety is protected. “All workers deserve a safe workplace,” Solis said, adding that worker protection laws “apply to every single person who works in the United States.”

Solis told the nurses that they are on the “front line of patient care” in this country, and “we need to make sure that [your] health and safety is protected.”

The labor secretary said her department is working on new standards that will protect nurses, including one on infectious diseases. Currently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration only has a standard to cover bloodborne pathogens, she said, but it now is working on a standard that will protect nurses against infectious diseases.

Earlier this month, OSHA announced in the May 6 Federal Register that it was requesting information on occupational exposure to infectious diseases in health care settings (86 DLR A-11, 5/6/10). OSHA is considering what measures to take, including rulemaking or guidelines, to protect workers against infectious diseases.

Solis also noted that DOL has announced rulemaking on an Injury and Illness Protection Standard that would require all employers to “find and fix” every hazard in their workplace.

OSHA said in its latest regulatory agenda that it plans to hold stakeholder meetings in June 2010 on a forthcoming injury and illness prevention program rule (79 DLR C-2, 4/27/10).

Solis told the nurses that in 2008 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported more than 36,000 health care workers were injured by lifting and transferring patients. In addition, she said, 12 percent of nurses who plan to leave the profession cited back injuries as a contributing factor.

“What a waste when the career of an experienced nurse is ended years or decades too early because of an easily preventable back injury,” Solis said. “In these days of ever-rising health care costs, what a waste of money to pay workers compensation and disability for easily preventable back injuries.”

Solis applauded the introduction in Congress of legislation (S. 1788, H.R. 2381) that would require OSHA to issue a standard requiring health care workers to use mechanical lift equipment when moving patients. The legislation also would require facilities to implement safe patient handling and injury prevention plans, train workers on safe patient handling, and authorize $200 million in grant dollars for acquisition of safe patient handling equipment (94 DLR A-7, 5/19/09).

That legislation is one of a number of bills the nurses will be marching and rallying around May 12, before they go off to lobby their members of Congress. Sponsors of the bills are scheduled to address the nurses.

Another bill the nurses are supporting is the National Nursing Shortage Reform and Patient Advocacy Act (S. 1031, H.R. 2273), which would establish minimum ratios of nurses to patients for all hospitals in the country (91 DLR A-8, 5/14/09). Introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the bill is modeled after nurse-patient staffing ratio legislation adopted in California, which has been in effect since 2004.

Text of the resolution on national contract standards may be accessed here

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