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New nurses union sets aggressive agenda

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By CHEN MAY YEE
Star Tribune
June 9, 2010

With the Twin Cities walkout, bedside nurses say they won't be ignored as they fight for a strict patient-nurse ratio.

Over the years, Jean Ross had become increasingly disenchanted with the national union that represents nurses.

She felt the American Nurses Association (ANA) had drifted away from the daily concerns of bedside nurses. She suspected it had become more interested in promoting nurses into management positions.

It appears to have been a common view. Last year, a breakaway group banded together to form a rival union: National Nurses United (NNU). In just a few months, it has grown to 155,000 members, approaching the century-old ANA's 180,000. It is now mobilizing across the country with one major goal: limits on the number of patients assigned to each nurse. Union leaders say nurses are stretched so thin that patients are in danger.

"Those of us going on strike are looking at saving future patients," said Ross, a veteran Twin Cities nurse who is one of three NNU co-presidents. "Not enough of us said, 'No, stop that.' We are saying it now."

On Thursday, the new union will flex its muscle: 12,000 nurses plan a one-day walkout at 14 metro hospitals. It will be the biggest nurses strike in U.S. history and could signal a new era of strife between nurses and hospitals.

"It's the shape of things to come," said Elaine Bernard, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. "Somebody's got to stand up for quality. We have a problem."

The hospitals uniformly disagree with the nurses' position, contending that their stations are well staffed.

In many ways, the dispute reflects a growing schism between bedside nurses and nurse managers and teachers further up the food chain.

"In the beginning, the ANA did a lot for bedside nurses. They set wage standards and codes for nurses," said Linda Hamilton, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association. "As time went on, they promoted nurses into leadership positions, nursing educators, nurses with doctorates. They just didn't serve the needs of nurses at the bedside any longer."

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