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Nurses’ Union Flexes Political Muscle

Wall Street Journal, 11/11/10

By Jim Carlton
Wall Street Journal
November 11, 2010

Labor Group That Played Role in Whitman's Defeat Now Plans to Press Brown on Workplace Rules, Universal Coverage

One of California's most powerful political players these days is a Bay Area-based nurses' union, which helped torpedo Republican Meg Whitman's efforts to become governor and boosted the prospects of the eventual winning candidate, Democrat Jerry Brown.

Now officials of the 85,000-member California Nurses Association say they will keep Gov.-elect Brown's feet to the fire on their agenda of improving conditions for nurses and the state's health-care system.

While optimistic about working with Mr. Brown, "we're used to fighting with politicians for our agenda," says DeAnn McEwen, co-president of the California Nurses Association, which is based in Oakland and is affiliated with the national nurse's union, National Nurses United.
Ms. McEwen says the nurses' union wants improvements in nursing education and provisions to enforce existing laws on staffing ratios and other workplace rules. Union officials also are aiming for Mr. Brown to sign a health-care bill that would guarantee medical care for all Californians, which departing Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice vetoed. The union endorsed Mr. Brown early this year.

A spokesman for Mr. Brown says the governor-elect is open to all input. "I think he and CNA agree on a lot, but he has the independence to say no when it's time to say no," says spokesman Sterling Clifford.

Led by a former Teamster's organizer named Rose Ann DeMoro, CNA has a record of getting its way on many issues. The group helped lobby the state legislature between 1998 and 2000 to pass sweeping reforms to the HMO industry. In 2004, Mr. Schwarzenegger took on the nurses by proposing cutbacks in health care, among other issues. They retaliated by helping defeat the governor's slate of reform measures that would have weakened unions' political power.

A spokesman for Mr. Schwarzenegger declined to comment. 
The nurses' union, which operates out of a low-rise office building in downtown Oakland, is one of a number of statewide unions based in the Bay Area. The California Teachers Association has its headquarters in Burlingame, while the California Federation of Labor—an umbrella group for unions in the state—also operates out of Oakland. "The Bay Area has deep labor roots," says Steve Smith spokesman for the California Federation of Labor.

The CNA isn't one of the biggest unions, but is considered one of the more effective. Its tactics are high-profile and often theatrical, with the union typically directing nurses to hound politicians. For example, CNA conceived the idea of hiring an actress to portray Ms. Whitman as "Queen Meg," and to show up at campaign appearances around the state to parody her as monarchal.

In addition, observers in state politics say, the public tends to have a positive view of nurses. "They're very effective at getting in the faces of politicians and leveraging the good name that nurses have," says Steve Maviglio, a Democratic consultant in Sacramento.
The CNA's rise also has been fueled by Ms. DeMoro. The 62-year-old was named to head the union in 1993 and has since quintupled its membership. Over that time, she has led the nurses in one political fight after another—and mostly has won.

The union's aggressive style was on display prior to the midterm elections in its attacks against Ms. Whitman. Apart from painting her as "Queen Meg," more than 1,000 union nurses showed up at Ms. Whitman's Atherton home last July to protest the former eBay Inc. chief executive's plans to cut welfare services and state jobs if elected governor. At another Whitman appearance in September in Burlingame, Zenei Cortez, a nurse from San Bruno, joined more than 100 nurses and other union workers in chants of "Whitman is a liar!"
"We're trying to tell the public that Meg Whitman is so close to the Republicans who have brought us this sad state of recession," said the 55-year-old Ms. Cortez at the time.

Darrell Ng, a spokesman for Ms. Whitman, says the protests were "another example of the CNA using the dues of hard-working nurses for blatant political purposes."
The union's tactics have sometimes raised eyebrows on both sides of the aisle. When former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez in 2007 pushed for a health-care bill that offered less than the universal coverage they supported, union nurses protested near the Democrat's office at the state capitol.

"They are the thorn of any politician who doesn't side with them," says Mr. Maviglio, who worked as Mr. Núñez's spokesman.

The union also has locked horns with other unions. In 2008, a CNA organizer was arrested after scuffling with two organizers of the Service Employees International Union in a territorial dispute over organizing nurses in Los Angeles County. Andy Stern, then president of the SEIU, declined to comment. Ms. DeMoro says the two unions have since settled their differences.

Still, having seen their endorsee Mr. Brown win the governor's seat, Ms. DeMoro says she is hopeful about the CNA and the governor-elect working together. "Although we fully understand that there are no 'political messiahs' who can right all wrongs, we also know that Jerry Brown is a seasoned, compassionate intellectual with undeniable leadership qualities," she says.

Write to Jim Carlton at

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